Death & Taxes on Good Friday

Good Friday is the yearly remembrance of Jesus’ Christ’s betrayal, trial, suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial. Christians across all times, cultures, and geographies have communally and reverentially worshiped Jesus as the author of salvation in his sacrificial act. Over the last 100 years, Good Friday has fallen on April 15th only four times. And, this is the first year in my lifetime that Good Friday is being observed on April 15th. 

Why is this important you might ask? 

You might be asking yourself, “is this essay going to be about how Good Friday relates to taxes and Tax Day?” Well, the answer is no, but also kind of yes. 

You probably know the phrase, “Nothing is certain but death & taxes.” It originated with the English Writer Daniel Defoe, and was popularized by Benjamin Franklin when he wrote in a letter to a friend, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Encapsulated in this quote is the thought that humanity cannot run away from certain things, certain permanent experiences that continue from generation to generation. 

Governments have existed for thousands of years and have taxed their people, from Babylon to Egypt, from Rome to the United States. Death equally and more powerfully has always existed. Death is the great equalizer. Whether you are rich or poor, young or old, sick or healthy, powerful or ordinary, you will die. No human, who has ever lived, has not tasted death. But, in a loose sense, death is also a kind of tax. 

Let me explain this a little bit more.

Our word “tax” comes from the Latin word “taxare,” which originally meant to formally disapprove of someone. That is obviously not how we use the word today. But, the word “taxare” also had connections to touching, grabbing, inspecting, which is how the French eventually changed the meaning of the root word “tax” and how we got our english version. They saw that “taxing” was the government “grabbing” or “seizing” an assessed price from the people. So, a tax is the governmental authorities in power “gripping” “grabbing” or “seizing” the goods they assess as necessary compensation. 

So, how is death a tax? How does death relate to humans having goods seized by an authority? 

Well, in the Christian worldview, humans were created as God’s image bearers. We have a unique dignity, value, and worth because God bestowed his image upon us at our creation [Genesis 1:27]. That is why humans are noticeably different from animals, plants, and the rest of creation [Psalm 8]. We have minds, rationality,  creativity, morality, and more that all points to a unique and exalted spiritual reality and existence. The same way coins and currency have images of their country’s leaders stamped on them, humans have God’s image stamped on us. 

So, in the Christian story, when humanity sinned against our good God; there were consequences. God’s good creation, all of it, was cursed [Genesis 3]. We see this everyday. Work is hard. People are mean. Wars are fought. People die. There is sin, evil, and death everywhere, and it can be experienced in a small lie or an international war, in gossip or in murder. So, God put a “tax” on mankind. Death. God, as the supreme authority, put a price on our disobedience and evil. Humans all die. God reclaims his image back unto himself. And, like I said earlier, no amount of money or power can change this reality.

The Psalmist even exclaims this truth in Psalm 49 when he writes:

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. [vs 5-9]

No man or woman can avoid this tax. No amount of money, no position of power, no new technology can save a human from the grip of death, the seizing of his life before God. It is appointed unto man once to die, and then our judgment [Hebrews 9:27]. You can’t hide your life from God, how rich people hide their money in Costa Rica or the Caymans. That’s not how it works.

So why am I writing about Good Friday, Tax Day, taxes, and Death? 

Well, April 15th represents all of those experiences for me this year. You see, April 15th is especially hard for me, not because it is Tax Day (I normally do my taxes in February or March), but because it’s the anniversary of my Dad’s heart attack and subsequent death. My dad’s death negatively affected me more than any other event in my life. And, every year I contemplate my dad’s death, it’s affects on my life, my family’s life, death in general, and death in the Christian story. 

One thing that my Dad’s death has taught me over and over again, is that you need to face death. You need to contemplate your death. You need to live a life knowing that you will die someday. That your taxes will come due, and God will call you home. Avoiding thinking about death and the great questions of life is no way to live. Distracting oneself with entertainment, riches, popularity, and the such can only help for so long. Sooner or later you need to confront death face to face. I find it interesting that often people dread the IRS more than thinking about their own mortality in life.

But, I can tell you that when I faced death, when I asked the question, can I offer anything to escape death? CanI pay the debt owed to God? Can I pay the great tax? I was met with only silence, anxiety, and fear. 

And, then I answered: no! 

There is nothing I can offer.

But in that place of darkness and despair, and complete honesty, a little light started flickering. And, that light was Jesus Christ. The Psalm I quoted earlier stated, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. But the story of Jesus Christ is exactly that. Jesus Christ is where heaven met earth, where God became man, so that man might be reunited with God. And this is what is so comforting as a Christian. The Christian story, my story, my father’s story is Jesus’ Story, and he pays the price. 

“No man can ransom another,” but God can. God can ransom humanity from the grave. The God-man Jesus can pay the tax that was due. He can heal our broken image. He can make the payment to God for us. And, so he did on the cross. He died the death that we deserved so that we might live in the light and life of God himself. 

No other religion, no scientific phenomenon has ever explained the world this way. No other religion has God descending to mankind to save us in his mercy and grace. And no scientific narrative, experiment, or technology will cause mankind to become like gods and avoid death. So, I put my faith in the one who can make the payment because he was a human like me, and the one who can satisfy the payment to God as God himself. I put my faith in the God-man, Jesus Christ. My only hope in life and death.

Ultimately this is a special year for me. Good Friday couldn’t come at a better time; it couldn’t be on a better day of the year for me. Because, ultimately today I am focused on the death of Jesus Christ, my savior. And, as I focus on Christ’s death; his payment to purchase me; to pay the tax so to say, I cannot help but be filled with hope. 

Humanity continues on. History continues. My dad died 24 years ago. My taxes are due today. Yet still I remember my savior. For he has paid my debt, he seized death itself. So, even though I will die, I will face it with hope and assurance, knowing that death is no longer a tax for me, but rather a down payment funded with the blood of Jesus Christ. A down payment that I will gladly pay to be reunited with my savior, my father, and those who are the beloved of God.  

Amen. 

Nothing Stands Between Us

My boys smiled at me as I cried, and then proceeded to spin to the music while screaming at the top of their lungs. And, in that moment I tasted joy; joy unexplainable. A joy so deep and unexpected, it can only be explained as supernatural. I felt the presence of God in that very moment. God telling me, “Nothing Stands Between Us!”

One Saturday this winter, I was on dad duty watching my two little twin boys, August John and Abel James.

The Elliott men, when left alone, plundered the kitchen cabinets for treasure and ate our fill of string cheese, deli ham, and Biscoff cookies. I even snuck August and Abel some bites of ice cream (don’t tell their mom). I enjoyed a nice glass of wine, a Pinot Noir with notes of plum and pepper if you care to know, and the boys each had a glass of warm milk, with some nice earthy tones.

After dinner and dessert, I decided to stream some live music performances from Youtube on our television. Now I need you to know that whenever I put music on for the boys, whether on the TV, our Homepod, or my record player, I sing and dance. They love watching me, and I love seeing their faces smile in joy. Daddy dancing has been fully incorporated into the Elliott family liturgy. That night as soon as the music started so did my feet. My queue played and feet shuffled as sweat steadily dripped off my head.

I decided to take a break.

Sitting on the cold floor, I rested my back against the living room loveseat. I smiled watching my two boys ecstatically play, talking to each other with an unknown language while fighting over a bag of zip ties (you would have thought the zip ties were gold the way they were fighting over them).The boys kept playing, and I stayed seated, a content dad; happy to see the joy on my sons faces. While I was enjoying this moment, the song “Nothing Stands Between Us” started playing.

If you aren’t familiar with the song, it’s the last song on John Mark McMillan’s Mercury & Lightning album. The album is a musical journey through John Mark’s existential crisis of faith; a journey through his feelings of disconnection and distance from God. “Nothing Stands Between Us” is the culmination of the album, where John Mark finally exclaims that it’s not God who has been distant, but rather he was the one being distant. Through all life’s joys and sorrows, God has been there. He exclaims, “You always find me, in between the thunder and the lightning.” In the quiet calm between a mighty clap of thunder and the bright flash of lightning; in that calm God is there too.

Right then, it happened.

My son, Abel, walked over and gently placed his forehead directly on mine. He just stood there, forehead to forehead, smiling and looking at me. While Abel was doing this, his twin brother August ran over and placed his head on my shoulder.

Emotions overwhelmed my heart. Tears intermingled with the sweat streaming down my face.

It was as if in this one moment my whole life played itself before my eyes.

Memories of my dad came flooding into my mind. My dad coming home from work, putting his foot on my stomach and shaking me on the ground as I laughed hysterically. Crawling onto my parents water bed in the middle of the night. Watching the Patriots game with my dad on a tiny 20 inch tv. Falling asleep on my dads arm, with my brother next to me, as we make deliveries in North Boston at 5:00am on a Saturday morning.

I saw my dad waving goodbye to me one last time as I enter kid’s church. Seeing my dad in a casket, not understanding why everyone is watching him sleep. Seeing that casket lowered into the ground. A gray, granite tombstone marking my dad’s resting place.

Then I saw years of pain: no dad on Father’s day; no dad at my graduations, my engagement, wedding, the birth of my sons; anxiety attacks; panic attacks; thinking I’m dying of a heart attack, just like my dad. I saw deep sorrow tied to my existence, to my experience.

In that moment I tasted sorrow. Salty tears streamed into my mouth; sorrow quite literally coated my tastebuds. My soul was overcome with memories of hurt and pain.

The song, Nothing Stands Between Us, continues, “River of gladness, take control
There’s a cup of joy for every taste of sorrow.”

For every taste of sorrow there is a cup of joy.

My boys smiled at me as I cried, and then proceeded to spin to the music while screaming at the top of their lungs. And, in that moment I tasted joy. Joy unexplainable. A joy so deep and unexpected, it can only be explained as supernatural. I felt the presence of God in that very moment. God telling me, “Nothing Stands Between Us!”

The Apostle Paul writes about this truth in the book of Romans.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:36, 38-39 NET)

Gregory of Naziansus, a Turkish pastor in the 4th Century, wrote a poem called Desire for Death, in which he writes,

“For I am stuffed full of all that the present world offers, of wealth, poverty, joys, of things that bring no joy, honor, humiliation, enemies, and friends…If I am nothing, my Christ, why did you form me thus? If I am precious to you, how am I pressed by so many evils?”

This truth that Paul wrote two-thousand years ago, and Gregory expounds on in his poem, I finally understood in my heart. To be human is to suffer. No matter how often we try to explain this away. Humanity is broken, and we all experience sorrow, sadness, and evil. But, nothing in this life can separate us from the love of God, because Jesus, God in the Flesh, tasted the greatest sorrow for us. We have a God who assumed humanity and with it, tasted our suffering, so that we may taste of the very life of God and the joy he brings!

So although to be human means to taste sorrow and suffer, to be human is also to experience joy and love in Jesus Christ and God’s beautiful creation. It is a beautiful dance. The same way the darkness of the night leads to the light of day, or the cold of winter leads to the warmth of summer, so to suffering and pain lead to joy.

And, I think I’m finally okay with that truth!

Sometimes you experience moments where you feel God’s divine presence in the small things, in the ordinary. This was one of those moments. What started off as a night of singing and dancing with treats, turned into a night of contemplating God and enjoying his presence; and, I’m not complaining. Sometimes we just need to open our eyes to see God right in front of us, whether in a beautiful sunset, in the hand we’re holding, or in the face of our children.

A THRONE IN DARKNESS: remembering my Father’s death after celebrating Easter

I remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, celebrate Christ’s resurrection with joy on Easter, then immediately go back to experiencing sorrow and pain by remembering my Father’s death. It is like reaching a beautiful mountain top only to have a storm roll in and quickly rush you off, having you descend in darkness and experience fear.

I’m sure this is how much of the world feels now during this current pandemic. Much of the world together remembered Christ’s death and then celebrated his resurrection this Easter Sunday only to wake up Monday morning to the Covid-19 storm clouds rolling in.

Yesterday was the twenty-second anniversary of my Father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. About every three or four years, the anniversary of my father’s death comes directly after Easter. These are always the strangest years to remember my dad and contemplate his death’s impact, because I follow this strangely depressing pattern. I remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, celebrate Christ’s resurrection with joy on Easter, then immediately go back to experiencing sorrow and pain by remembering my Father’s death. It is like reaching a beautiful mountain top only to have a storm roll in and quickly rush you off, having you descend in darkness and experience fear. 

I’m sure this is how much of the world feels now during this current pandemic. Much of the world together remembered Christ’s death and then celebrated his resurrection this Easter Sunday only to wake up Monday morning to the Covid-19 storm clouds rolling in. Cases are resurging in China and South Korea. The Stock Market is still volatile. United States unemployment is at an all time high since the Great Depression. The disease is still spreading with the death toll still rising.


Christ has risen but we are still isolated, anxious, and scared of the unknown. Those who do not believe in God, and even those who do believe in God are both asking the same questions: “where is Christ in this time of death and darkness?” 

The answer is that Christ is in the darkness with humanity. Christ is with us. 

The good news of the gospel is not that we have a God that draws near in our joy but remains distant in our suffering. No, the good news of the gospel is that we have a God that became completely human and drew near to us in our suffering, so much so that he died and entered the darkness with us. 

Where is Christ in this time of darkness? He is in the darkness. 

Peter Liethart wrote about this very truth in his essay, A Throne in the Grave. Leithart explains that in the sacrificial system of the Jewish people, the ark of the covenant symbolized the presence of God. The ark was covered in gold inside and out, and had two beautiful angels sitting on the top of it, and it was considered the throne of God. The ark resided in the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple, a room decorated beautifully, yet a room that no one could enter except for the high priest once a year. God’s presence lived with the people enthroned at the center of a beautiful temple. God’s throne was in glory. 

But, in Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection the great inversion happens. God’s presence resides in a man, and that man dies. So, God’s presence resides in a tomb, in a grave, in darkness. When Jesus resurrects from the dead, two angels sit in his tomb, mirroring the ark of the covenant, symbolizing that the grave is now Christ’s throne. Our God is not a God that stays enthroned in beautiful glory, no, our God descends to make his throne in the darkness of humanity. God’s throne is the grave. Leithart writes, “Where in hell is the evidence of Easter? This is exactly the right question, and it answers itself. Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” 

The beauty of the gospel is that Christ experienced ugliness. The power of the gospel is that Christ experienced weakness. The joy of the gospel is that Christ experienced sadness. The life of the gospel is that Christ experienced death. The light of the gospel is that Christ experienced darkness. So, where is Christ in this time of darkness? Where is God in this time of pain? He is sitting enthroned on the grave, he is sitting as a light in the darkness. For what good is a god to humanity if he stays enthroned in the heavens? Our God brings his light into our darkness. 

So, now, whenever I experience a year like this, when the anniversary of my father’s death is after Easter, I remember that the risen Christ is with me in the darkness. The victorious Christ does not stay enthroned in the heavens, he does not stay in the gold temple, he does not stay on the top of the mountain. No, the victorious Christ is with me in the pit of sadness. He is with me in darkness. He is with me in the storm. This is the good news of the gospel, this is the good news that we celebrate in Easter. 

And, Christ can be with you in this time of pandemic, in this time of crisis, and any time of crisis. Simply call to him in your sadness, call to him your pain, call to him in your anxiety, call to him in your darkness. For, the God of the universe who controls the sun, the stars, and the moon is sitting enthroned in your darkness. Draw close to Christ, for he is the eternal light of the world. 

*If you feel like you are looking for light in these dark times, or you want to know more about my dad’s death and how it affected me, or how Christ gives me practical and tangible hope, you can email me at peter@resurrectionchurch.com or comment below. I’d love to talk with you!

As the Ruin Falls: Pain & Beauty; Destruction & Resurrection

Photo Credit: Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

Saturday morning my wife, Stephanie, and I with our friends and family celebrated the new life and coming birth of our twin sons, Abel James and August John Elliott. Gray clouds covered the sky, and a steady rain fell on the ground, a typical spring day in the South Puget Sound. I awoke early to bake four country loafs and slice apples for our charcuterie boards. After packing our car with food and supplies, we drove to pick up our morning coffee and then headed to the baby shower. The morning continued and we helped my wife’s family setup the event room with flowers and other decorations. People trickled in little by little: immediate family, extended family, old friends, new friends, loving pastors, and my beautiful wife, carrying my two twin boys surrounded me. Everyone was smiling and laughing. The happiness was palpable, and the party was the exact opposite of the dreary, depressing weather outside. During the baby shower, happiness overcame me, and, in that moment, my heart was overfilled with contentment and joy, similar to reaching the peak of a mountain or watching the sunset at the beach. It was a moment where one is thankful just to exist, to see and experience beauty, to love, and to be loved. It is in these moments that God’s presence feels so close, that mankind is able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”[1]

But, what does man do with the evil that befalls him? What happens when we taste the bitterness of this world rather than the goodness of God? Where is God in these moments? For even in our happiness, mankind cannot escape the cold grasp of death. Even in celebrating the new life of my beautiful twin boys, I am unable evade the business of the grave. Today is the twenty-first anniversary of my father’s death. And, his death makes bitter even the joy of new life.

People say that time heals all wounds, but my father’s death seems to become more painful every year. The more joy I experience in my life, the more pain I feel from his death. The more goodness I experience in my life, such as graduation, marriage, and now children, the more I long for my Father to be alive to experience it with me. It is so painful to have children and to know they will never meet their grandfather. My twin boys, Abel and August, will never get to sit on Grandpa John’s lap; my twin boys will never feel my father’s strong hands hold them ever so gently; my twin boys will never see their grandpa pray by their bedside begging God to guide them in his ways; my twins will never know the love my father had for God, my mom, my siblings, and me. Even more so having children reminds me that I will never experience handing my son to my dad to hold; I will never feel the loving and firm embrace of my dad; I will never experience my dad telling me how proud he is of me as a father, a husband and a man. But, I surmise that the pain I feel is simply a product of the beauty I experienced in being my father’s son. Memories of my father’s laugh, of my father’s love, and my father’s faith are still with me to this day. The pain I feel is simply the absence of my father in my life.

It is strangely poetic that the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire today. The 856-year-old cathedral, captivated millions of admirers and pilgrims who walked through its doors in awe of its beauty. In Notre Dame, we saw a physical embodiment of beauty. And to lose that pains us. The pain of its destruction is so deeply felt exactly because the world knew its beauty and wonder. So, is the death of a human soul! To know and love someone only to see their body deteriorate over time or suddenly collapse, causes humans deep pain. Yet, we are powerless to stop this destruction.

Jesus Christ, our Savior, saw his beautiful creation dying and deteriorating. But, unlike mankind, he was not powerless to stop its destruction. So, he in fellowship with the Holy Trinity descended into humanity and assumed our nature. Christ Jesus was goodness, justice, love, and beauty encapsulated in a human. He was fully God and fully man, and we rejected him. He was the most beautiful thing that this world has ever experienced, and we killed him. ­And, mankind watched his body crumble in weakness. Jesus’ body was broken and soul crushed for humanity, like Notre Dame burning, the human embodiment of beauty was destroyed.

So, why did the triune God allow Jesus’ humanity to taste this bitterness? Why did Jesus experience this immense pain? Why was the beauty of Jesus allowed to be extinguished? Why was man permitted to eradicate the goodness of Jesus? Doesn’t this seem counter-productive to saving mankind?

Death became intertwined into the fabric of humanity after the fall of Adam and Eve. Death in a way represents our destroyed beauty, our fall from grace. Death is like the flame that just consumed Notre Dame, it is a sweltering fire that consumes beauty. And, Jesus, as God, assumed all of humanity, which means he assumed even the experience of pain and death. Jesus willingly allowed himself to experience the ugly reality of pain and death, because He wished to restore mankind’s beauty. He experienced death to bring new life. He experienced sickness to bring a remedy. He experienced sorrow to bring joy. He experienced pain to bring relief. And, that is what the resurrection shows. The true beauty of Jesus Christ is that he did not stay broken, dead in the ground. No, our Savior rose triumphant. Like a phoenix from the ashes, like the sun from the darkness of night, like a bright diamond from the darkness of the ground, our Savior was raised anew. Jesus was the firstborn of the dead, and He is a sign of the great things to come. For, Jesus is going to return and remake this world. Jesus resurrected not for his salvation alone, but for the salvation of the world. Jesus wants to heal the world; he wants to make the world beautiful again.

Many of the great moments in our lives are connected to parties. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, and baby showers are often moments of sheer happiness and beauty. In these moments, surrounded by friends and family, we love and feel loved. Our Savior, Christ Jesus, is going to throw a beautiful celebration for the world when he returns. At this party Jesus will restore all of our brokenness. All of our physical ailments will disappear, death will be no more, and all tears of sadness will be wiped away.[2] The brief momentary joy I felt at my sons’ baby shower was just that, momentary. But, that great and beautiful party when Jesus returns shall be eternal. For, when Christ returns all things will be made beautiful and indestructible, and mankind will once again be in perfect fellowship with God, who is beauty itself.

I have now come to terms that the pain of my Father’s death will never be resolved this side of eternity. Our Savior thinks it fitting that we should experience pain to grow our dependence on him. As C.S. Lewis once wrote in a poem, “For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains you give me are more precious than all other gains.”[3] When our life shatters and we experience deep pain and brokenness, it is those who seek Jesus in humility that will experience true life. For it is in Jesus that all temporal things will find their eternity. And, this is the hope that I will teach my sons: Pain is a reality of human life, but the beauty of Jesus Christ is greater than this pain.

[1] Psalm 34:8.

[2] Revelation 21.

[3] http://www.pford.stjohnsem.edu/ford/cslewis/documents/notes/Wordsworth%20SBJ%20As%20the%20ruin%20.pdf.

 

A Bitterness unto Death

“The heart knows its own bitterness…” – Proverbs 14:10

Social media, and American society itself, increasingly seems to be morphing into a platform and arena of projected bitterness. Our democratic republic is facing a high intensity of polarization. Bickering and violent protests are everywhere. So, the question we must ask is whether the bitterness on display is the direct result of social media and American culture or rather inherent to the nature of man. I am one to believe that bitterness stems from the heart of man. But, bitterness is reactionary in nature. One becomes bitter and angry when he experiences something distasteful. Envy of others, the betrayal of a friend, anger at someone’s beliefs, these experiences and more cause humans to become bitter. Humans resent that which causes them pain. Similar to Newton’s Third Law, experiencing bitterness often has an equal and opposite reaction of bitterness in the soul of the one affected. Experiencing bitterness causes bitterness; one could call this the dualism of bitterness. Therefore, if bitterness is reactionary, it then follows that social media acts as a conduit or conductor for bitterness.

Social media as a platform has infinite potentiality to grow bitterness in individuals. For, an individual involved with social media not only deals with local issues and interpersonal relationship, but also has their world opened to millions of issues and thousands of relationships, albeit shallow ones. The more one focuses their attention on the shallow world of mass media and less on the physical community they are a part of, it is often the result that these individuals naturally become more bitter. Why do you ask? Simply because there is more content to which one can react. With more content, comes the greater chance of encountering something that makes one envious, depressed, and annoyed. These experiences cause one’s heart to become bitter. And, this bitterness often leads to anger and anger to retaliation, sometimes violent. One only need watch the nightly news to see a protest that ended violently. Often the violence that erupts at these protests are fueled by rhetoric on social media. Sadly, we live in a day in age where internet trolls do not remain online in the world of perceived fantasy, but in their bitterness, allow their nature to be corrupted to the point where they physically act like brutish, ugly trolls themselves, illogical and violent.

But, we must remember that bitterness is a plight of the heart of man and not inherent to social media. Therefore, our solution must be focused on the care of the human soul. So then, from a theological and Christian perspective, how does one combat the plight of bitterness? The answer to this question must pierce to the root of the issue, which we have stated as the heart of man. When a man is sick and hot with a fever, it does him no lasting good to merely cool him down with cold ice compression. A good doctor will give an antidote to combat the root cause from which the fever stems. And, this is what our Lord does for us in the Scriptures. Let us look to them for guidance.

One of the major themes of the Sacred Scriptures is this idea of bitterness. One would expect this as bitterness is a common experience to all of humanity. Every created thing experiences some form of bitterness, whether physical suffering, spiritual agony, emotional distress, or the vices of sin because the world is broken. For, bitterness entered in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Though its flesh may have been sweet, it left only bitterness in the mouth of Adam, Eve, and their descendants thereafter. For, after that fateful act, the Triune God cursed man resulting in the multiplication of sin, pain, suffering, and eventually death. Suffering, sin, and pain are bitter by nature, and as we stated earlier they also produces bitterness in the heart of men. Let it be noted here, that experiencing the bitterness of pain and suffering is not itself evil; it is only evil when man allows those external evils to create bitterness toward God or fellow man in his very soul.

From Genesis to Revelation bitterness is painted over the pages of Scripture. Exodus, Leviticus, the Proverbs, Lamentations, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and even many New Testament passages expound on the theme of bitterness. In Exodus, God makes a central part of the Passover diner eating bitter herbs, so the Israelites remember the bitter bondage of slavery in Egypt. Job and the prophet Jeremiah are perhaps the primary example of the scriptural theme of bitterness. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul consistently writes to put away bitterness from the church body, and the apostle John records in Revelation that one of the plagues cast down on earth is bitter waters. Bitterness’ emphasis in the Sacred Scriptures thematically adds great depth to the redemptive salvation of man by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For, mankind does not need saving if there is no bitterness from which to save him. Let us specifically put before us the accounts of Moses and Naomi to better explain this concept.

On Moses and the Israelites:

It is recorded in the book of Exodus, that after the Israelites fled Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, God immediately began to provide for their daily needs. He provided them with mana, quail, and of course, water. For God not only saves, he daily provides the sustenance needed for life. Moses writes in the book of Exodus that, “Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”[1]

This passage, along with the entirety of the Israelite Exodus, teaches that tasting bitter things often result in inward bitterness. The bitter waters of Marah caused an inward bitterness in the hearts of the Israelites. The Israelites wanted water. That desire was good. But, when they could not have it, they responded with annoyance and bitterness toward Moses and, in essence, God. Experiencing bitterness resulted in inward bitterness and outward grumbling.

So, as the story continues, God guided Moses to throw a wooden log into the water. The wooden log transformed the water from that which was bitter and undrinkable to that which was sweet and refreshing. Thus, supplying water to quench the thirst and needs of the Israelites.

On Naomi and Ruth: 

The book of Ruth examines the life of two women who experience the pain of familial death and societal ostracization. While the book is named for Ruth, Naomi is integral to the redemptive telling of this story, for the book begins and ends with Naomi.

First, the book starts off with Naomi and her family leaving Israel to go to Moab because of a famine. In Moab Naomi and her husband have success and happiness, culminating with their two sons marry local women, Ruth being one of them. Tragedy strikes. Naomi’s husband and two sons die, leaving her with no possessions and no purpose, living in a strange land.

The story then continues that Naomi to find some consolation leaves for her home, Bethlehem, Israel. Naomi urges her daughter’s by law to leave and start their own lives with other men. It is then when Ruth famously tells Naomi, “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”[2]

After Naomi returns to Bethlehem, her old friends are talking to her and very simply call her by her name. Naomi, who is so bitter in her heart, responds, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Marah, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.”[3] Naomi’s name in Hebrew means “pleasant.” So, this illustration becomes even deeper, for as Naomi ate of the bitterness of this fallen world, she responds by becoming bitter herself even naming herself Marah.[4] That which was pleasant became bitter. Experiencing pain caused inward and outward bitterness in Naomi, so much so, that she formed her identity around bitterness.

The story continues that Ruth through her love and faithfulness to Naomi, brings redemption to her family by marrying Boaz and bearing Naomi a figurative grandson. As stated earlier, the book of Ruth starts with Naomi and ends with Naomi. Chapter four states, “Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer…He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”[5] God turns Naomi’s bitterness into joy with new life.

Moses and Naomi Explained:

Similarities between these two stories emerge as one puts their mind to study. Each story has an object or subject that is first pleasant. The Water of Marah and Naomi were once pleasant; they were not always bitter. But, outside circumstances entered and caused bitterness to overcome each, making them bitter to those who interacted with them. The Israelites wouldn’t drink the water, and Naomi was bitter toward God, her friends, and countrymen. Yet, both were not left to remain bitter. God in his infinite wisdom sent remedies to them both. The waters of Marah were healed with a tree, and Naomi was healed through her loving daughter-in-law, Ruth. Both the waters and Naomi became pleasant once again bringing refreshment and joy to those they interacted with. The waters quenched the thirst of the Israelites, and Naomi once again was pleasant toward her countrymen. Is this not a foreshadowing of our Savior, Jesus Christ?

It is clear to see that the waters of Marah and Naomi, who named herself Marah, represent fallen humanity. Humanity has become bitter toward God because of the suffering caused by sin, death, and the devil; suffering and bitterness which was self-inflicted in our case. Mankind in his selfishness became bitter toward God, unpleasant, and useless. Not only is mankind bitter toward God, we also are bitter toward our fellow man becoming envious, angry, and full of resentment. It is also clear that the tree Moses cast into the water and the godly Moabite, Ruth, are symbols of Jesus Christ. For, that which is unpleasant needs a mediator to make it pleasant once again. No man, woman, or created object has the inherent qualities or abilities to make that which is bitter sweet again, for in the fall all things became bitter. As Proverbs poetically puts it, “The heart knows its own bitterness.”[6] Every man, woman, and child has bitterness in their heart, and bitterness cannot cure bitterness. Mankind needed a mediator of divine sweetness, a mediator of God himself.

Jesus Christ, through his life, crucifixion, and resurrection, is our Ruth. Jesus, upon that beautiful tree of Calvary, dispenses of the bitterness of humanity like the tree that cured the waters of Marah. St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “But if the wood be thrown into the water, that is, if one receives the mystery of the resurrection which had its beginning with the wood (you of course understand the “cross” when you hear “wood”), then the virtuous life, being sweetened by the hope of things to come, becomes sweeter and more pleasant…” Our Lord saves us not only from physical affliction with the hope and promise of the resurrection, but he also heals our souls of all bitterness and hate which we harbor in our fallen nature. Oh, how beautiful is our Lord, Jesus! He allowed himself to be cut down, that he might make mankind pleasant and fruitful once again. For the death and resurrection of Jesus lead to the redemption and resurrection of mankind.

Jesus not only redeems us supernaturally from the bitterness of sin, death, and the devil, he also gives us a practical example to overcome bitterness in our own souls. Christ Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit in order that we may exemplify Him more perfectly in our sanctification. Our Savior was beaten, whipped, and crucified; his own countrymen, whom he healed of physical and spiritual sickness, were the ones who killed him. Not only did his countrymen kill him, his friends abandoned him. Lastly, our Savior, in his humanity, had the Triune God turn his face away from him. And, as David before him, Jesus Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Why are you so far from saving me…)”[7] But in this pain, in this bitterness, Jesus responded with only grace and humility. Toward his country men, who killed him, he stated “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[8] Toward his friends, who abandon him, he stated, ““Peace to you!”[9] To the God the Father, whom he felt had abandoned him, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”[10] Jesus responded to bitterness with love and joy. Instead of letting bitterness poison his own soul, our Savior conquered bitterness with love, valuing the other greater than himself. May we learn from his example.

Thus, let us seek to emulate Christ in our own lives. When your enemies taunt, troll, despise, and spit on you ask for their redemption. When your friends use you for personal gain and then abandon you, grant them forgiveness and peace. And, when you feel your God has abandoned you, commit your spirit into his hands; knowing that he loves and cares for you even when He feels distant. Experiencing bitterness need not result in becoming bitter. When, the church and its members responds to bitterness, anger, resentment, and suffering with grace, love, peace, and joy, they act like waters of Marah. They are like sweet fruit produced by the work of Holy Spirit. For, being healed by Christ is not merely for personal betterment, but for the improvement of the world. Christ as our Mediator makes us sweet, humble, and full of joy. The world, like the Israelites, is thirsty for sweet and refreshing water. May the church seek Christ in order that we may become sweet to our fellow man. Showing them the way of love and peace. Showing them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Showing them the way to the Triune God. Amen.


[1] Exodus 15:23-24. ESV.

[2] Ruth 1:16-17.

[3] Ruth 1:20.

[4] It is interesting to note, that this is the very same Hebrew word the people of Israel gave to the place that had bitter water. So, bitterness is often so deep and painful that we define ourselves as bitter. One could even say mankind identifies as the essence of bitterness itself. Bitterness makes us bitter in our being.

[5] Ruth 4:14-15.

[6] Proverbs 14:10.

[7] Psalm 22:1.

[8] Luke 23:34.

[9] Luke 24:36.

[10] Luke 23:46.

Death in the Garden: A Reflection on my Grandmother’s Death

I find myself writing on death quite frequently. Every year for the anniversary of my father’s death, I write a theological reflection and meditation on the concept and reality of human death. Death has always had a certain hold on me, and I have always had a certain contemplative fascination with it as both a spiritual concept and physical reality. Well, death has reared its ugly face again, and on Tuesday, my Grandma Shirley experienced physical death and similar to her son, my father, became present with the Lord. I imagine they are together in heaven enjoying the presence of Christ and living in his perfection. Over the past three days, memories have both lifted and drained my Spirit. Thinking on my Grandma’s life and the many loving experiences I had with her has brought much joy, as well as grief, to my heart.

As I reminisced over all the stories Grandma told me and my siblings, all of her favorite experiences from her many travels around the world, all of the meals we had together at Thanksgiving and Christmas, all of the Dunkin Donut munchkins and coffee we had around her kitchen table, one characteristic overwhelmed me. My Grandma was truly one of the most consistent, resolute humans I have ever met. For the better part of my life from toddler to twenty-two-year-old, almost every Sunday afternoon after church, my family and I visited my Grandma. Every Sunday, there would be bakery snacks in the kitchen, a coffee pot half-filled, and a crystal bowl of M&M’s for anyone with a chocolate craving. Every week we as a family would talk with Grandma about her regular brunch meetings with her friends, her weekly mass, and much more. My Grandma was structured, disciplined, resolute, and unwavering, the Matriarch of the large Elliott family.

My dad was one of ten children. So, as you can imagine, my extended family is quite large. My grandma had so many grand children and lived to see many great-grandchildren born as well. And, she was there for all of us. Grandma was amazing. Her resolute character, witty responses, and devoted nature inspired me as a child. Grandma was truly a Matriarch not only physically but morally. She led my father, my siblings, and me, and I am sure the rest of the Elliott family as well, in her beautiful example. She impacted so many through her absolute, unconditional love of her husband, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I with the rest of the Elliott family are an heir to her great legacy.

And above all, Grandma loved Jesus, loved his church, and proved this week after week by going to mass, listening to His word, partaking in the Eucharist, and giving of her time and money. Even when Grandma could not physically go due to her health, she would watch the mass on TV. Even in her last week, when she was at the hospital, she told me that she was able to watch the mass and take the Eucharist with the local parishioner. It is this resolute discipline and dedication to the church and to Jesus that impacted me so much. It is my Grandmother’s unwavering dedication to the Church through thick and thin that spurs me on to do the same.

And, as I think to my Grandma’s dedication to God and family throughout her life, I cannot help but meditate on the Triune God’s dedication and faithfulness to her in death. For is this not the gospel message that gives hope and inspires humans to have faith and love in this world? God’s word in it’s witness to the person of Jesus Christ assures humans of God’s faithfulness to those who believe in his Son even in their death. As Jesus himself proclaimed, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent…that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[1] God asks every human: come to me, eat of me, listen to me, know me, and have life. Come to my Son, Jesus through my Spirit and have life. And, if one does these things in and through the faith which God has given him, then God through His good grace will raise him on that final day, when he comes to defeat death and evil once and for all.

And the Christian message is the only message that preaches Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully man. That Jesus, as a man, did what man could not do and defeated death. And, that he defeated death, because he was God incarnated, the eternal Son. And Christianity preaches that this God-man did not conquer as a king but as a servant who submitted to death to bring man to life. For, Jesus took sin upon himself in death and thus defeated sin, death, and the devil through the power of his resurrection. Thus, death was the divine tool of man’s salvation. As the Apostle Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”[2]

Death was originally humanity’s enemy. It was not part of our original design; it was a self-inflicted wound from our forefather, Adam. As St. Paul explains, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”[3] Death is a a wound that still hurts us to this day. The pain of loss. The pain of memories that draw you into presence of those who have passed away. My Grandma’s death hurts me, and I am sure that when I attend the funeral I will experience more pain and sorrow. Pain is not the only weapon of death, doubt and insecurity often follow as well. In human life the reality of death, of our physical existence ending, causes man to question existence itself. What is life? What happens after death? Paramount metaphysical questions enter the human mind when death enters the picture. So, death as the enemy attacks with pain, suffering, doubt, and insecurity.

Now, insert the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

God has defeated death. And, if one in faith draws to that message of truth, God will raise him on that final day. Humanity’s pain and suffering is answered by the truth that God will wipe away all tears, and that we will be reunited with our loved ones. Human doubt and insecurities are answered as well. What is life? Life is to know God through His Son. What happens after death? After death one will become present with the Savior and healed of all evil and physical infirmity. This means that death is not only the divine tool of salvation, but also becomes a tool that makes humans rely on God. Death draws us to God. [Perhaps this is why I am fascinated with it.] As Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “God brings men not from life to life with smoothness and ease, but from life to death to life with the pain of childbirth and the pangs of death and the continuing threat of nonexistence hanging over them. Living in hope, therefore, means living by faith in the God who can reach even into the hollowness of nonexistence . . . to confer life.”

My Grandma had a hymn she quite liked. It was “In the Garden” by Charles A. Miles. Miles wrote this hymn after reading and experiencing the story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden after the resurrection. Miles was in complete awe of Mary Magdalene seeing an empty tomb and being filled with doubt, hurt, and pain, thinking her dead savior’s body had been stolen. Mary Magdalene was experiencing the attacks of death: pain, sorrow, and doubt. But, the story follows that in the garden outside the tomb, Mary Magdalene sees a man who she thinks to be the gardener and ask if he knows where they took Jesus’ body. The man then reveals himself to be the resurrected Jesus Christ. And, in this moment, the truth of the resurrection becomes so clear. Jesus has defeated sin, evil, sickness, fear, sorrow, and doubt, because he has defeated death itself. In the garden, Christ arose; in the garden, death was defeated. As the song goes:

He (Jesus) speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

I know for a fact that as the night was falling around my Grandma, that Jesus Christ’s sweet voice was calling out to her to come home. I know that God was faithful to her, as she was faithful to Him. She had faith that in Jesus’ Baptism, in his Word, in his Eucharist, in his Church, in his Love that she would be secure even through death because of his almighty power and mercy. That although death in her life had caused her pain, sorrow, doubt, and insecurity, that Jesus was standing next to her saying, “Death is swallowed up in my victory. Death where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?[4] I have defeated you. You have no power.” I hope to have that same resolve when I am faced with death. And, I know that if I draw near to Christ in this life, he will raise me in the next. For, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent…that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[5]


[1] John 6:29,40. ESV.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.

[3] Romans 5:12.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:55.

[5] John 6:29,40.

Brothers at War: Theologically Reflecting on Race


In moments of confusion and uncertainty, moments that cut to the heart and cause man to question the goodness of God, it is good that man seek God above all else. I often have to remind myself of this truth. Evil actions of men in this world such as the recent murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, five Dallas policemen, and three Baton Rouge policemen, make my heart sink. To see the image of God, men and women, murdered and marred because of prejudice, hate, or revenge should cause the hearts of all men and women to be sorrowful. Our hearts should break seeing this division and malice, as our God is not a God of chaos[1] and hate, but a God of order[2] and love[3].


Whenever my heart is overwhelmed with sadness and confusion, I look for answers. I want an answer that explains the evil that we as humans see and experience. These recent murders have caused me to deeply meditate on modern racism and racial strife. Racism is a despicable thing in and of itself, for racism, at its core, denies the created order that God ordained as “very good.”[4] For, God created all men and women in his very image, as his very own children.[5] No human life escapes the dignity and value that comes with being born and fashioned in the image of God. And, if every human is made in the image of God it is not wrong to say that every human belongs to the same divine race.


Most rational, educated persons can tell you that there is only one true race in the world: the human race. Soledad O’Brien in her Q Commons talk on race in America quipped, “Race does not exist. I am not trying to be clever…biologically speaking, genetically speaking, there is only one race.” She’s right. Scientifically, it has been proven that all humans biologically and genetically descend from the same ancestors. And, this is theologically correct as well, for the Bible teaches that humans are all descendants of Adam and Eve. Boethius, the fifth century theologian also states, “All mankind comes from the same stock.”[6] So why do social, cultural, and physical differences cause man to believe that there are literally many races?


Racism and slavery in their essence are results of the fall of our parents, Adam and Eve. Because, Adam and Eve, as our representative heads, fought against our true Father, the Triune God, mankind was thus divided.[7] Mankind now fights and bickers in continual cycles of animosity, because its parents first bickered and disobeyed God, their Creator. Racism points to an inherently deeper issue: mankind’s sinful nature. Christianity thus claims that our first parent’s original sin is placed on the following generations. All of Adam and Eve’s children, all humans, receive an inherently self-centered nature, and this manifest itself in many ways; one way being racism.


It seems that story of Cain and Abel, the actual first children of Adam and Eve, was in some way prophetic.[8] Socially constructed races, who are brothers of the same family, look to others and are filled with envy, jealousy, and anger. And, instead of working together, races attack, murder, and enslave those they envy or those by whom they feel threatened. Like Cain, different races and societies lift the stone of jealousy and strike down the brother they envy or dislike.


This cycle of animosity has never stopped. Think on mankind’s history. Most great people groups have created enmity within themselves, brother against brothers. Noah’s son’s Ham (Africa & Southwest Asia), Shem (Middle East), and Japheth (Europe & Asia) divided from each other and they fought and enslaved each other.[9] Isaac (Israel) and Ishmael (Palestine) bickered and fought for Abraham’s birthright and land, and they continue to fight to this very day.[10] Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) fought for favor with their father.[11] Joseph was hated by his brothers, and his brother’s wanted to murder him but settled to sell him as mere property, as a slave.[12] Even in the myth of the founding of Rome, Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers, fight over where the city would be founded. The arguing ended with Romulus killing Remus. Brothers always seem to be at war. And God, both through his divinely inspired word and through history, teaches us that it is in man’s sinful nature to continue this cycle of animosity, jealousy, and division. This division continues even unto today.


Societies bicker. Nations war. Cultures clash. Races hold prejudices. The cycle continues. In America, whites accuse black communities of fueling gang warfare and violence against police. Blacks accuse white communities of institutionally binding them down while stealing their culture. Broad generalizations are used as arrows in the quivers of social media warriors. Complex issues are foolishly compressed into ammunition to be fired at the enemy. The cycle continues. Brothers are still at war; the fighting continues and anger grows. Sin has taken its hold on us and will not let go; evil has a firm grasp, and it will not relent.


Let me first say, that I do not have definitive answers for these complex and divisive issues. The black community has truly been hurt by present and past American institutions, the War on Drugs is one prime example. This does not even scratch the surface of the past atrocities America committed against the black community in the evil known as slavery. Furthermore, white Americans do live with certain privileges. I as a white male will never understand the fear of being pulled over for my skin color; I will never understand the fear of getting a job application glanced over and thrown away because of an “ethnic” name. These are privileges I do live with. The black community has legitimate fears and concerns.


But, on the other hand, police officers have been targeted and killed while defending the free speech of those who are protesting them. And, many white men and women have been falsely generalized into the category of “ignorant.” This spurs white Americans to feel either ashamed or defensive. These two realities make the situation feel more like a war and less like a constructive conversation.


The solutions to national racial strife are not simple. The governmental action to be taken is still unknown. I can tell you a good place to start legislatively weeding out racial injustice, is researching candidates and voting for ones that include criminal justice reform in their platform; candidates who oppose the “War on Drugs” on the basis that it has caused an increase amount of black and Hispanic arrests and incarcerations over that of the white population; and candidates who would decriminalize drugs without legalizing them. (Yes, there is a difference.) These policy reforms would dramatically reduce the amount of racial profiling and injustice in America. And, if a candidate you vote for does not explicitly support these types of reform, write him as his constituent.


But, even though these legislative policies would most likely help eradicate certain racial injustices and disadvantages, they are not the answer to racial strife. Government has never been the answer and never will be the answer. Very simply, the government cannot legislate its citizen’s into true peace and community, because the government can never impose reconciliation. Reconciliation is not a concept that can be forced (legislated) onto two parties; reconciliation is in it’s nature voluntary. Therefore, I am of the opinion that the only way racial reconciliation can ever be truly achieved is in the person of Jesus Christ, and in his body, the Church.


And, although I do not have definitive answers to these complex issues, I do understand that the Church is the single greatest vehicle for racial reconciliation and communal problem solving among local, broken communities. For, in the Church mankind worships the God who became man (His enemy) to save them, the Creator who became creation to redeem that which was lost.


Christ became our brother to end humanity’s sibling rivalries and jealousy. Jesus Christ, the eternally begotten Son of the Father, became fully man and partook in our humanity. Christ assumed our racial strife, our familial hatred, our sin. For, He was hated by his own family. He was hated by his own people, the Jews. He was scorned by the Romans. All of humanity stood before him on the cross and scoffed at him. As G.K. Chesterton noted, “All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself.” Mankind killed its brother. We, as Cain, lifted our stone of jealousy and hatred and killed He who we envied. Jesus Christ, our Brother, offered a pure sacrifice to His Father, and we murdered him unjustly.


But, what mankind meant for evil, Christ meant for good. Joseph similarly stated to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”[13] The story of Joseph was a foreshadowing of the story of Christ. Joseph’s brothers meant to harm, kill, and destroy him. But, Joseph rose from the depths of prison and was seated with the king and given power. Joseph used his power not to destroy his brothers and avenge his misfortune. Rather, Joseph gave his gifts to the very brothers who sought to kill him. Joseph was a mediator of divine reconciliation.


Jesus, as Joseph, is seated at the right hand of the Father and has been given all power under earth, on earth, and in heaven. And, Jesus does not condemn all of his brothers to the same death we gave Him. No, Christ gives us His very gifts. Jesus as our Mediator, heals our broken nature and restores our fellowship with God. Jesus wipes away the stain of original sin. He gives us his righteousness. He gives us eternal life. He gives mankind, Himself. And, he does this to heal that which is broken. Jesus became our brother, and suffered under our hate and scorn, in order that brothers may no longer fight.


Christ is our hope. And, this hope is not far off, but among us in the Church, which is the body of Jesus Christ, the head. The Church is his vehicle for racial and familial reconciliation. Local communities are able to partake in the nature of God. Communities that seek God together through the Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of His Holy Spirit can partake in real reconciliation. And local communities reconciling will lead to the nation being reconciled. For, in and through Christ we are equal. In Christ, men and women are not judged not by the color of their skin but by the virtue of his or her actions. In the communion of the Church mankind can be vulnerable and open, while theologically understanding that even redeemed humanity is still sinful and imperfect. And, in instances of imperfection, instances of ignorance and prejudice, the Church understands that it’s head, Christ, gives grace. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”[14] Thus, Christ ushers mankind into voluntary reconciliation; a reconciliation that pierces to the heart of man and changes their worldview.


The incarnation of Christ also teaches us that even the man you call your greatest enemy is still your brother, a co-participant in the human race, and an image bearer of your common Father, the Triune God. And, Christ did not merely “put up” with his enemy, he personally carried his enemy’s burden and emptied himself even to the point of human death.[15] Christ carried mankind’s burden, so that mankind would learn to carry each other’s burdens. Therefore, in the Church individuals are able to hear the burdens that other members have and help carry them.


In the life of the American Church, we as white Christians have the ability to help carry the burdens of racial injustice that our black brothers and sisters so often carry alone. Jesus Christ so lovingly carried our burdens, may it never be said that we did not do the same for our brothers. But how do we carry this burden? Well, I cannot tell you. But, ask your brothers and sisters of color with a humble spirit, listen to them, and they will tell you. And, this attitude will then be reciprocated. In a reconciling community men and women of every skin color and culture carry each other’s burdens: black, white, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern. In the Church individuals carry each others burdens because all of our members are our family, all of our members are our brothers and sisters. Humanity’s nature as one family, one divine race, is thus being restored. America, and the world alike, is yearning for a solution: the Church is that solution, but the Church needs to lead and show by example it is the best vehicle for reconciliation.


As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory,  “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.” Only a society that seeks to be like Christ will find itself healing and reconciling. And, a society imitating Christ begins with local communities seeking Christ. And finally, communities striving to be morally just and loving can only be so if it’s individuals are. And that change starts with you and me seeking Christ in communion, community, prayer, and the preaching of the word. Love and seek God; pray for racial reconciliation and peace; and love your neighbor as yourself.


Title Painting: Orazio Riminaldi, Cain and Abel, 17th century

[1] 1 Corinthians 14:33.

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:40.

[3] 1 John 4:8.

[4] Genesis 1:31.

[5] Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 8

[6] The Consolation of Philosophy, pp 75.

[7] Genesis 3.

[8] Genesis 4.

[9] Genesis 9:18-28.

[10] Genesis 21.

[11] Genesis 27:41-45.

[12] Genesis 37:12-28.

[13] Genesis 50:20, English Standard Version.

[14] Matthew 6:12.

[15] Philippians 2:8.

Medicine for an Anxious Heart: a Christian Meditation on Death and Fear

Court-of-death

 

Peter Lawler stated in a recent article, “Philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being (existence) itself is not in our hands.” Lawler aligns himself with great thinkers such as Plato, Cicero, and Montaigne in believing that Philosophy has the purpose of preparing oneself to die. Shakespeare even incorporates this thinking into his many plays. But, I am convinced that philosophy can only do so much to sooth man’s soul, and I would like to assert that one should replace Philosophy with Christianity. And, I am fully convinced of this: Christianity is learning how to die.


This past year has been quite a year. I graduated from college debt free. My brother was married. I became an uncle. I was offered a job that I wasn’t qualified for. And most importantly, this year, I married my beautiful wife, Stephanie. God has been gracious and kind to me.


But, although this year has been filled with joy and happiness, I found myself deeply saddened. April 15th, 2016 marked the 18th year anniversary of my father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. It can easily be deduced that my father was not at my graduation, at my niece’s birth, at my brother’s wedding, or at my wedding. His death still has a real affect on my life, even though it was 18 years ago. So much so that in April of last year, I had an anxiety attack that landed me in the emergency room of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. Having too much caffeine from coffee and to much stress from school, work, and wedding planning resulted in the anxiety attack, but I am convinced the root cause was my deeply rooted fear of death. Let me explain.


Because of my father’s early death, I have always feared a premature death, myself. My dad died of a heart attack when he was forty-one, and I was so scared that my anxiety attack was a heart attack that I literally tricked my body into thinking it was going to die. The doctor told me that I had experienced a hypochondriac reaction. I had convinced myself I was dying, and my response consisted of being frantic, afraid, and scared.


But, this brings me back to my original point. Christianity is learning how to die, at least a large part of it. Death is the great equalizer of humanity. Every one experiences death. Naked we enter this world, and naked we leave. From dust we are formed, and to dust we return. No matter who you are, you will die. Death is scary, and the fear of death has many tangible reactions. Anxiety, denial, and ignorance are just a few.


I am afraid of death. I am afraid of being separated from my family. I am afraid of the pain I might face in my final hours. I am afraid of not being there for my children. And, every year I remember my dad’s death, and what he has missed, it incarnates that fear even more into my life. Fear is not something that mankind merely experiences, it is a part of our nature. Although a concept, fear incarnates itself into our reality in a concrete way. How does mankind conquer fear and its many consequences? The Apostle John with such sublime and simple words tells us that, “Perfect love casts out fear.”


But, how does love cast out fear? Often the answer to this question places the action on man to love and not act out of fear. Preachers often tell us, “You, human, in your own capacity, do not fear. You, human, in your own capacity, love other.” But this is the wrong way of understanding this concept. Fear has incarnated itself as a part of our human nature. The only thing that can overcome the human incarnation of fear is a divine incarnation of love.


The question one should ask is not “how do I with love cast out fear?” but rather, “how does perfect love, the Triune God, cast out fear?” The Father gives us His Son, Jesus Christ, through His Spirit. And, the presence of Jesus Christ in our souls casts out human fear. Christ casts fear out, because He is perfect love. And, as Christ casts out demons who controlled the men and women they indwelled, so Christ cast out fear from his church’s body. The God who calmed the raging waters of the Galilee Sea, can assuredly calm the fear in his children’s heart.


Therefore, the answer to fear is Christ himself. Christ went through death for humanity. God experienced death. As Peter Leithart eloquently explains in his article Lord over Death, “He (Jesus) is not only Lord over the safe confines of heaven…Not only Lord over galaxies, but Lord in the world of hunger and thirst. Not only the Lord over nations, but the Lord in suffering, injustice, and pain. Not only the Lord over life, but also the Lord and tamer in death.” Christ did this as our brother, a partaker in humanity. Adam sinned and brought death, destruction, and fear upon all mankind. But, through Christ, the God-man, mankind has life, redemption, and love. As Leithart states in another article, “The Lord of life becomes Lord of death. God’s throne is a tomb… Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” Our God not only became man, He experienced the dirty, messy, humiliating act of death.


Modern society views death as man’s weakest point, that great adversary of mankind. Death is the point of human existence in which human will and ability can do nothing to stop the impending destruction of life. Death is in its nature a humiliating moment. Perhaps this is why euthanasia is becoming so appealing to many; human will can exercise its power one last time. Human will desires to be lord of its own peaceful death. But, that subject can be tackled at a later time.


In Christian thought, death receives a new nature and purpose. Death is man’s act of victory; man’s final experience of pain and sorrow, becomes its moment of victory. Death is still humbling in Christianity’s understanding, but it is humbling because we submit ourselves to God in humility with faith that he will raise us up incorruptible. Christian’s go to the grave not fearing death, for in death’s humiliation we are exalted to the heavens into the throne room of God. God made his throne the grave, so that man’s grave could become his throne. This is why a large portion of Christianity is learning how to die. For, Christianity teaches that in death we have life if we place our faith in the power of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We literally preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in our very death. Man is sinful and weak and deserving of the punishment of death, but through faith in Jesus Christ man is restored to a divine life that is incorruptible. This is the message of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.


So, when fear attempts to reincarnate itself into the hearts and minds of men, man is to think of Christ. Think on that perfect love, who incarnated himself on this earth and in your heart. Think on Christ, who descended into the grave and rose victorious. And, pray. Pray for Christ to give you His Spirit. For through His Spirit, we receive the power, presence, and love of Christ, the Eternal Son. Our God, came to this earth as one of us, and conquered not as a powerful King, but as a dying servant. And, through this we have peace. Our anxieties and fears can be calmed, for God has accomplished the work of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. And, with this peace, man can truly live. Understanding the true nature of death leads to true life. Anxiety, stress, and despair slowly fade.


My fear of death still exists, and my heart is still anxious. Every year when I remember my father’s premature death, my heart will become heavy with fear and anxiety. But when my heart is heavy, I think of the word’s of Christ, “Come to me all who labor and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ speaks to my heart through his Word, through His Church, through His Communion, and through Prayer. He tells me to have no fear, for he has conquered the grave. And, slowly, very slowly, I am learning how to die.


Title Painting: The Court of Death by Rembrandt Peale. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012645626/

Thoughts on Fatherhood from One Who is Fatherless

Today, being the sixteenth anniversary of my father’s death, I reflect and meditate on the truths of God pertaining to death and life. This is my consolation. Reflecting on the nature of God truly is the only consolation I have found in this life, in my sorrow. Asking questions of God, and meditating on how He Himself is the answer is the only source of contentment and satisfaction. The triune God is the summum bonum, the ultimate good, and until we find satisfaction in Him we will never find peace, we will never be content, we will never find happiness.

So then, let this be my meditation:


C.S. Lewis once wrote that his literary mentor, George Macdonald, believed that Fatherhood must have been at the center of the universe. Yes, fatherhood, specifically, the fatherhood of the triune God to his creatures, for we are not only called his “creatures” but his “children.”


We see this theme throughout all of Scripture, and we see it most in the relationship of God the Father and His Son. We are told by God through the incarnation of Christ that the Triune God is in Himself a family, a divine family. The triune God is a Father, who eternally begets the Son, and in their union they emanate the Spirit. This is beautiful, for God fashioned us in this very image. God made the base structure of humanity the family unit. Fatherhood and Family is at the center of the very universe. The entire structure of our world, civilizations, and economy is the family unit. Without it, we would fall apart. I believe that this is a beautiful reminder of the nature of man, that we are secondary, that without God we fall apart. The temporal family is then a means of seeing the eternal, divine Family.


But what of those who are fatherless? What of those who are motherless? What of the orphans? This is a question I have often asked in the absence of my Father. The answer to this question is beautiful, the answer is God and His work in the Church. We know that Christ is the head of the body, and that with Christ’s mind unifying His body, it acts as the hands and feet of God. The Church is used as the physical manifestation of God’s nature, for we know the Spirit indwells to testify of Christ, who being the physical manifestation of the Father, we imitate. Thus the body should testify of God’s nature through God, for God is at work in us for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). We are the family of God, being fathered by the triune God.


 This is why the Bible talks of the Church as a family unit. This is why Jesus is the husband, and the Church is the bride. This is why God is our Father, and fellow Christians are our brothers and sisters. We are His children, and He is our Father! This is why Jesus stated that only those who obey the will of the Father are His brothers, sisters, and mothers. Jesus as our co-heir lovingly led us to His Father. And, as His children God lovingly disciplines us as Hebrews 12:7-8 states, “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” This is also why God is known in the Old Testament as a Father to the fatherless and a helper of the widow. And in the New Testament, this is why pure and undefiled religion is to visit the fatherless and the widow!


 So then, the Church is a family in itself. It is a family that has a greater bond than even the biological family. Our God truly is the Father to the fatherless and a defender of the widow. I can tell you that in my own experience, as I was raised fatherless, the Church provided fathers for me. Loving men, some were married and some did not have children and were single, came alongside of me and taught me. They mentored me, took me to baseball games, and showed me the truth of the Gospel. My mother who would sometimes be unable to provide, received help from the church. God worked through his Church; He was my Father, when I was hopelessly fatherless! He was my mother’s defender! This is what God shows us in how Paul relates with Timothy. Timothy, who did not have a Christian father, receives fathering not from his biological father but rather from Paul, his spiritual father.


So then let this be a challenge to you! Take every opportunity to help those who are fatherless and widowed, who are abandoned, who are weak. Take it from one who was fatherless, God is displayed through the familial relations, which He designed and commands us to follow. We are fallen; we experience death. God then has given us redemption! God is our Father, and by His Spirit we cry out to Him, “Abba Father!” Let us then act upon this. Let us proclaim to the world through both word and deed that our Father will father the fatherless, he will defend the widow, for He is the redemption of humanity. In human despair, God is the answer. In suffering, He is joy. And when death rears its ugly face, He is our life. Living out the Gospel requires being part of a family, an eternal family. Let us through the work of the triune God show the world that our God is Love, our God is Life, our God is the Father of the universe.


In loving memory of John Francis Elliott: Child of God, Gracious Husband, and Loving Father.

You are remembered because you attached yourself to the truth of God, which is eternal.

Love Examined. part I/II : Love and the Triune Nature of God.

Love. What is it? So many people claim to have it, but how many truly do? People have said love to be indescribable, some have said that love is pure commitment, and others pure emotion and elation. Love can be rationalized; love can be romanticized. But what is love? Love has been described as many things, but it can only be one. In our modern subjective world, many thinkers have created definitions for the word “love” and many of them, when challenged, then lean on the crutch of relativism to defend their position. Love, then, from this confusion has come to be known as acceptance and tolerance.


In relationships, women “dump” men who do not accept them for who they are. On social networking websites, disagreements run rampant because others cannot accept certain beliefs. These people become known as “haters” because they do not follow the law of love, acceptance. In families, sons and daughters carry disdain for their parents, because their parents do not understand their so called “needs” and refuse to accept their petty demands. No matter what arena of life you enter, love, from its myriad of definitions, has lost its true meaning and has been reduced to tolerance.


So what is the true meaning of love? Can we know what love truly is?

The Apostle John states, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (1) Humanity, by the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ, is given the superlative of love, to sacrifice one’s life for his friends. But how can this be? The greatest command from God was to love Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and then my neighbour as myself. How can Jesus have these two ideas of the greatest “love” cooperate?


Christ, when speaking to the disciples in John 15, brilliantly displays the eternal truth of love. True love and the greatest good even in John 15 is this: the imitation of Christ through humility which results in partaking of the divine nature of God. Let me explain. In the following verses of John 15 the Apostle John writes of Jesus saying to his disciples, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you….I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (2) Christ describes that love consists of doing what He commanded; it consists of imitating Him. A true friend of Jesus, whom He as a man “laid down His life for,” will follow Him and will have a life that resembles His.


And why does Jesus wish this? Because Jesus, Himself, has been displaying the Father to them. Jesus is telling His disciples that imitating Him, a distinct person of the Trinity, is imitating the one essence of God. Later in Jesus’ dialogue He states, “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.” (3) Love is in its essence Trinitarian. Let me explain.


The Trinity works in a way that displays all three persons of the Godhead. Christ magnifies the Father, the Father exalts the Son, the Father and Son emit the Holy Spirit, and then the Holy Spirit magnifies Christ. It is in this act of aseity or oneness that God magnifies himself to the world. So then when Christ says, “when the Comforter (Holy Spirit) is come…he shall testify of me” He is revealing that true love in His disciples will result in humble imitation (sacrifice) and partaking in the divine nature of God. For, when we accept the saving grace of Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit as a down payment. The Holy Spirit then magnifies Christ to our mind, renewing us, causing us to live sacrificially, and in imitating Christ, through the Spirit, we then imitate the Father.


Again, the Apostle John speaks of this act in the epistle of 1 John. He states:

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins….No man hath seen God at any time….Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. (4)


Again, love is of God, for God is love. And God is Trinitarian, so then his love manifests itself in a Trinitarian way. God is the highest good, the fullness of what love truly is. Thus our love must also follow what Christ, the fullness of God and man, did. He sacrificed. He lowered Himself to live a life of service on this earth in the form of his very own creation; then He lowered Himself to death even the death of the cross. And this God, who is the best and highest good, is thus worthy of our love. And loving Christ will result in imitating Him, and imitating Him results in obeying His commands, and obeying his commands results in a rightly ordered life.


And why does Christ command this? Why is this important? Because the same way the Spirit displays Christ, who displays the love of God to us, so we as the Church display the love of God to the world. Hence this theology of love is also practical. He writes in John 13, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (5) The Church then, as it loves one another in its imitation of Christ, displays the love of God. If the Church clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, and gives drink to the thirsty, it shows the world the love of Christ.


But, love must be a full display of Christ to the world. The same way Christ stood for morality, so also should Christians. In the same way, Christ rebuked the hypocrites so should the Church. The same way Christ was righteously angry so also should Christians. But, can these acts, alone, fully display the love of Christ?


No, for all of these acts, whether feeding the poor, rebuking hypocrites, or correcting immorality, are of an external nature. This means that these acts carry the possibility to be done for the wrong reasons. For, if a man can die for the faith without love and give all he has to the poor without love, then this love must be something deeper.


The love of God is much deeper than this. The love of God is a change of motives. Previously, in chapter 13, Christ washed His disciples feet, and in doing this He showed them that humility is the key to loving one another. For, after washing their feet, He told them to do likewise to each other. Christ was demanding a heart change from his disciples, and it was in this heart change that the world would see Christ. The love of God is philosophically a motive that manifests itself in an action; it is not just an action, and it is not just a motive. Thus love is fully recognized in a humble act that has a sacrificial motive.


Sacrifice, exalt others, and in doing this you will display Christ. Love changes one’s motive from serve self to serve Christ, which will manifest itself in serving others. Yes, actions are necessary in displaying the love of God, but this love is something deeper. It’s a changed heart. It’s the ability to balance your emotions, thoughts, and motives in order to address every situation in a correct manner. Love changes the thoughts of man from “what can I get?” to “what can I give?” It changes the emotions of man from “what can satisfy me?” to “how can I satisfy others?” And, it changes the motives of man from “how do I preserve myself?” to “how can I sacrifice myself to help others?” This is Love, to sacrifice one’s life for his brother and in doing so imitate the Triune God.


Love is not tolerance, love is humble sacrifice. Love does not react in passivity, love acts with humility. In doing this we imitate the very nature of God. Let us all pray with Saint Augustine:

“O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love! You command me to be continent. Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!” (6)


1.The Holy Bible: King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. Print. John 15:13.
2. John 15:14-15.
3. John 15:26.
4. 1 John 4:11-15
5. John 13:34-35
6. St. Augustine. The Confessions. New York: Collier, 1961. Print.