Coffee House Discourse #4

by Tom Wolpert on July 29, 2019

In which our Vagabond Is Instructed from an Unlikely Source

I wander into the coffee house on a Sunday afternoon, expecting to meet a friend, Andy Windsor, for a friendly game of theology chess. He is indeed situated in one of the large booths, chessboard set up. Andy is waiting for my arrival in an area of the coffee house near the back which provides additional seating, situated on a wide-width plank floor of dark-stained pinewood, raised about eight inches above the floor level of the front part of the coffee house. This area of the coffee house is entered through a finished, framed double door opening inlaid with ivy decoration carved into the portico side columns. A small wood-carved engraved entrance sign displays on top of the portico, reading Solomon’s Collonnade. The chess pieces in front of Andy are large, plain plastic flat black and white pieces, two or three inches high. The board is a square of flexible coated plastic that can be rolled up, with vivid green and white squares, stored in a carboard cylinder with the pieces, to sit when not in use on a nearby shelf among the books.

Andy and I nod and smile to acknowledge each other, but first I make my way to the order line. In a few minutes, I bring back to the booth my café au lait and a coffee house specialty called ‘Fianchetto,’ – chilled, marinated, seasoned and tenderized flank steak sliced into a dozen paper thin leaves of steak approximately the size of plums. I will dip the Fianchetto slices of flank steak one at a time into a small silver-grey steel cup of flavoring which accompanies the order – soy sauce, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic power, basil, parsley, pepper, prepared mustard and a few other ingredients, whose precise identification I could not cajole out of the coffee house manager.

Andy is about 5’10”, neither slim nor heavy, with thinning, golden blonde hair, an oval face with round, intelligent blue eyes and a calm, observant expression. For many years, he worked as a systems analyst and programmer for a variety of different defense contractors and technology companies, often holding security clearances that he never discussed. Andy started out life thinking he was going to go into the ministry and acquired an undergraduate degree from a Bible college, but a short series of entry-level ministry positions at one or two churches, and his own probing introspective nature persuaded him that formal ministry was not the right direction for his life. He wandered into the technology field in his twenties, and his analytic mind and computer programming made immediate friends.

Andy is unmarried and an only child. For many years he lived with his mother, Deborah. He was born in Florida, where Deborah was abandoned by his father when Andy was five or six years old. Their economic circumstances were marginal for years. They lived in manufactured or mobile homes in various mobile home parks in Florida, while Deborah taught at various Christian schools. They moved around Florida as Andy’s mother tried to increase her salary, and ultimately moved further north. Deborah never remarried, and was over 90 when she passed. The mother-son pair were inseparable for almost sixty years. When Deborah was quite elderly, Andy set up some sophisticated technology in their home so he could monitor her health and well-being while he was at work. Andy maintained a long-term dating relationship with a woman whom I never met, but she apparently was permanently situated in Manhattan, both by professional vocation, church identity and personal preference, a place to which Andy was simply unwilling, for similar reasons, to relocate.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, I asked, “Well, are you ready?” He was sitting behind the white pieces, and I did not challenge his choice to make the first move. Andy looked at me with his subtle blue-eyed smile – no doubt he had cooked up some well-prepared lines of attack. Pawn to the king four, P-K4, was his opening move, playing white. (The reader will note that I use the older style of chess notation.)

Andy simultaneously launched his opening theological gambit. “Speaking of the reprobate, with the rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, to pass them by with respect to the election of grace, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sins, to the praise of his glorious justice,” Andy recited his opening lines slowly and distinctly, with his quiet, low-pitched voice. Clearly, he had been preparing. He concluded his quotation, which had to be derived either from the Westminster Confession or Calvin, with a mischievous and satisfied smile. Not the first time we had essayed upon this particular subject, but I saw he had to have something up his sleeve.

Pawn to the king four, P-K4, I played out my black King’s pawn. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” I replied. This was not a new line of attack or defense, whether in chess or theology, for either of us.

Andy played knight to the king’s bishop three, N-KB3, moving his king’s knight to attack the pawn which I had just advanced. “Be logical. You can’t have an election by sovereign grace, without its opposite, an election to reprobation.”

Night to the queen’s bishop three, N-QB3, I responded on the chessboard, defending my King’s pawn. “He came for a testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all men might believe through him.” When I made this reply, I was working my way through another Fianchetto slice, so my mouth was full, but he knew what I was saying, regardless of my poor diction.

Bishop to the knight five, B-N5, Andy played, to attack my knight, which was defending the pawn which was attacked by his knight. “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, having foreordained us to adoption as his children,” he declared.

Pawn to the queen’s rook three, P-QR3, I played, to chase back his bishop. Andy could capture my knight, and then when I recaptured with my queen’s pawn, take my undefended king’s pawn with his knight. But his king’s pawn was also undefended, and so I would recover my lost pawn quickly by attacking both of his pieces on the queen’s file. “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world,” I answered. “Even the angels long to look into these things,” I added for emphasis.

Bishop to the queen’s rook four, B-QR4, Andy played, retreating his bishop without losing his attacking pressure on my knight. “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined,” Andy announced carefully. “And those whom he predestined, he called. And those whom he called, he justified. And those whom he justified, he glorified.”

Although I certainly didn’t admit anything to him at the start of our game, I thought his recitations by memory were fairly impressive. Following the maxim, ‘if you’ve got one good argument, stick with it,’ I replied. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I emphasized the last four words of my reply, and played my king’s knight to the king’s bishop three square, N-KB3.

Andy castled. “Think of Jacob and Esau. Yet before the children were born, not having done anything good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him who calls.” Andy was clearly having fun unrolling his argument. “Rebecca was told the elder will serve the younger,” he informed me with evident satisfaction. I resolved to do some memorization myself, before we played the next time. I had a good idea of what was coming next.

Bishop to the king two, B-K2, I played, preparing to castle. “Behold, the Lamb of God,” I countered, “He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”

Rook to the king one, R-K1, Andy played his white rook, just castled, onto the king file, defending his King’s pawn and threatening to carry out his attack on my King’s pawn by exchanging his bishop for my defending Queen’s knight. He looked at me with a studious expression, but with a bit of hesitation, like an actor who is somewhat new to his part in the play, and needs a moment to recollect his lines. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. For God said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Andy ended his scriptural quote to present a series of hypothetical questions, hands folded in front of his rook on the king file. “How can you have the assurance of salvation, without election? Can you be saved on Monday, lose your salvation on Tuesday, and get it back on Wednesday? Then what happens on Thursday? We’re not talking about lottery tickets here.”

Black pawn to the queen’s knight four, P-QN4 I played, to interpose my queen’s knight pawn between his bishop and my vulnerable, king’s pawn-defending queen’s knight. I recited the verse he knew was coming. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whomsoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I don’t often quote the King James version of the Bible, but with John 3:16, it seemed appropriate. Andy would have been disappointed if I had used a modern translation for that verse. “Whomsoever,” I repeated. “When it comes to salvation, man’s logic is not our friend. You can’t reason your way to the cross.”

At this point, someone who was overhearing us wandered over to stand and watch, but we were too absorbed in the game and our discussion to pay immediate attention. Andy played his white-square-traveling bishop (predestined, by the rules of the game, to never light upon a black square), bishop to the knight three, B-N3.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you, that you should go and bear fruit.” Andy looked up at me with a decidedly victorious smile. “I chose you,” Andy repeated. “So said our Savior,” Andy paused, “and he is not to be corrected.”

Some months ago Andy had again memorized verses and chess variations to spring them on me in a game of theology chess. At that time, out of responsive ideas, theologically or on the chessboard, I declared that he was a “crypto-Calvinist.” What that meant, I wasn’t sure, it was my way of conceding a momentary defeat. Andy had smiled his victorious-yet-friendly smile and softly laughing, replied, “pseudo-Lutheran!” But being aware that a stranger had come over to watch and listen, I stayed away from joking epithets which might not translate well to someone who didn’t know us.

Looking down at us from the end of the table at our booth was a young man, probably in his mid twenties, with black curly hair in need of a trim around his collar and over his ears, of medium build but short, possibly 5’8.” He had not shaved that day or perhaps the day before, so he had visible whisker shadows on his face around his cheeks, chin and upper lip. His eyes were dark, quick and active. His eyebrows were dark and thick and nearly touched each other. He was dressed in a summer, pastel-decorated shirt, and khaki shorts, with flip-flop sandals, as if he were vacationing in the Bahamas, which made a sharp contrast to his darker complexion and unshaven appearance. I didn’t see anyone else with him, or sitting nearby with whom he might have come to the coffee house. His empty cappuccino cup sat at a nearby booth.

Since he was staring at the game board, I introduced myself and Andy, giving our names, holding out my hand for him to shake. Andy and I each shook hands with him and offered our “hello’s” and introductory pleasantries.

“Hello,” he replied, in a voice that had a reed-like or tenor tone, definitely not a baritone, for his build and appearance. “I’m Sam. Sam Isch. Sam-I-am, if you’re a Dr. Seuss fan.” He paused a moment. “Are you going to play d6 next?” he asked me. “He plays c3, you castle, then he plays h3, or he could play d4 right away.” Sam spoke rather quickly.

Since Sam was using modern algebraic chess notation to describe the moves, I couldn’t immediately follow what he was saying. Although Andy and I were having a casual game of coffee-house chess, customarily open to kibitzers and various observers, it wasn’t good form for an observer to start talking about possible moves to come in a chess game he wasn’t playing, but only observing.

Both by virtue of playing the white pieces, so he was oriented in the right way to quickly grasp the orientation of modern algebraic notation, in which all moves are described from the white side of the board, plus because he was an IT guy who was simply good at interpreting that type of thing, Andy grasped immediately what Sam was saying about the next moves. But Andy was even more put off by a kibitzer starting to announce our possible moves in advance than I was. Besides, Andy had prepared his theological lines for this chess game, and the moves of the pieces were rather vehicles for our theology discussion, not ends in themselves. Andy didn’t say anything to Sam immediately, but I could read Andy’s reaction easily enough in his expression of quizzical annoyance.

“Are you discussing predestination?” Sam asked, ignoring Andy’s facial cues. “Can I play the winner?”

“It’s sort of an intellectual game we play,” I explained. “It’s not really about winning. We call it theology chess. It’s a way of having a discussion, a sort of orderly discussion between friends.” I thought this answer over. “But a discussion that’s enjoyable. Not a discussion that anybody expects to win.” I wanted to engage Sam, but on our terms. “And it’s only chess, something we do for the pleasure of the game. But to answer your questions, yes, we are discussing predestination, and, two, sure you can play when we’re done with this game. I have a feeling you can beat us both.”

“I like the discussion too,” Sam said. “I was listening from over there,” and he pointed in the direction of his now empty cup.

“What’s your background?” Andy asked, smiling. “If you’re going to jump into our chess game, we’d like to know a little about you.” In making this second statement, Andy dropped his smile, which possibly was a tad forced, and adopted his expression of examination and inquiry, which I recognized. If not altogether fuzzy-bear like in its friendliness, Andy’s question about Sam’s background reflected Andy’s genuine interest, not mere polite formalities.

“I’m a Quaker,” Sam explained. “A member of the Society of Friends. By conversion and conviction. I wasn’t born a Quaker.”

“I didn’t know Quakers were interested in topics like predestination or election,” said Andy, calmly, with an inquiring tone at the end of his statement. “The Quakers are not known for propositional theology. But you certainly can listen. We don’t have a fence up around our conversation.”

Sam did not seem put off by Andy’s tone, which was reasonably polite, but with a distinct element of formality. “We believe that the message of the Spirit is alive today,” Sam answered. “We challenge structures. We think the power of the Spirit is available to everyone. The inner light is available to everyone,” Sam asserted, and his answer had the quality of being previously prepared also – apparently it was the appointed day for prepared theology in the coffee house and prepared lines on the chessboard.

“I think I’m more skeptical about human nature than you are,” Andy observed. “But I encourage everyone’s spiritual journey and questions. Still, I think we may differ on some points.” Andy paused to see how Sam might react to that. Since Sam didn’t appear to be reacting at all, Andy continued. “You believe in new revelations of the Spirit? Even if that were contradicted by Scripture?” Andy composed his questions carefully.

Sam came out immediately with his answer, no hesitation was necessary for him. “Quakers believe the Bible is not the final revelation of God. It was written by men who were acting under the power of the Spirit.” Sam memorized answers too. “They were written in accordance with their light within. We have to read it with the same spirit in our hearts,” Sam recited. “In accordance with the light within,” Sam repeated. Having said that however, Sam did not look directly at either Andy or me. His focus was on his own thoughts and words.

We stopped examining the board for the next moves of the chess game. There was an element of stress in Sam’s voice as he spoke – his tone wasn’t the calm and relaxed confidence of someone who has had long experience with his own beliefs and is comfortable with them, or the relaxed confidence of being sure he was among friends.

“And you acquire this inner light by personal, individual experience?” Andy asked. “Don’t you think there might be some problem in basing your eternal fate on some private, personal experiences?” Andy could perceive the tension in Sam also, but now Andy had something to say. “I would have a lot of concern about basing my knowledge of God entirely on my own personal experiences. They haven’t always been that great.”

“Well, there is a sense of the meeting,” Sam answered. “Our Quaker meeting. It’s not completely subjective. Other Quaker believers are involved.”

“But it could be,” Andy continued. “This inner light or inner voice could act in one person’s life, pretty much at any time. Could speak and give them this avenue to go down, or that one, or whatever seemed right to them.”

“It should happen at a meeting. We call it an opening,” Sam replied, seeming to agree with Andy’s characterization, and now responding more directly to him. “Still, it’s not just an individual person off on their own. Quakers are the Society of Friends.”

About this time someone else walked over to join our group. A large man sidled over, perhaps 6’2”, weighing 230 pounds or so, about 40, with a broad, open clean-shaven face, brown eyes, brown curly hair just a few weeks from his last haircut, with dark blue long work pants and pullover sports jersey with blue and gold striping. He had large hands, creating the impression of a blue-collar working man. He didn’t speak immediately, just listened and watched one half-step beyond Sam’s shoulder, over which he saw easily with his greater height, his brown eyes moving in a systematic, businesslike way across the board.

Andy thought over Sam’s answer a moment, then returned his attention to the chessboard. He picked up his white queen, jumped it over his row of white pawns, jumped it over my rows of black pawns and pieces, and then placed it standing off the board on the table, immediately behind my king and let go of the piece for a moment. Andy paused, then again picked up his queen by his fingers, holding her by her crown, and knocked her rather decisively against my king, knocking my black king over. “Checkmate,” Andy announced. “Game over. I win. The inner light of chess told me I could. The old rules don’t apply anymore.” He placed his queen down on the square my now-supine king formerly occupied. My supine black king rolled slowly on the board in a semi-circle until blocked by my adjoining pieces, as the base of the piece was circular and larger than the crown. My bishop looked sad. “Why doesn’t that work?” Andy asked, looking at Sam.

“C’mon,” said Sam, but it was evident Sam didn’t have an immediate answer. Plainly Andy was waiting for Sam to object along the lines of ‘you can’t play chess that way.’ Of course Andy was ready to say something like ‘there’s no game, and there’s no point, if there are no rules, just an inner light.’

Sam didn’t take the next step of continuing a kind of off-the-chess board theology debate. He went to speak, but then stopped, and wouldn’t walk into Andy’s demonstration, or trap, depending on how you looked at it, so he said nothing. There was some silence. With the white queen sitting on the black king’s square, there was no point in reviewing the board for possible combinations of moves, so we were all silent.

Sam finally composed his thoughts, and responded in a more personal way, with an even more obvious note of tension. “If you don’t want other people to join you, why do you play chess here? You could play in your own house. No one would interrupt. Why discuss things out loud, if you don’t want anyone to hear and join in? It’s a Christian coffee house. When I came in, I thought I might meet some Christians,” he concluded with a mild but discernible, and childlike or childish, note of resentment, accusation and hurt feeling.

Theology chess is fun if you are doing it with friends, and the outcome and the rules are understood by both players. Andy’s expression suggested he had expected Sam to give a more theological answer, perhaps a prepared answer. Arguing positions was expected and intended. I could see Andy wanted to ask Sam, ‘But isn’t that what we were just doing?’ Andy wasn’t thinking about Sam’s feelings when he made his flying off-board white-queen move – that was a legitimate way to make a point in theology chess.

Andy defended himself. Whatever Sam’s vulnerabilities were, Andy was not willing to accept the idea that Sam should not be treated as a competent adult. “Sam, why walk over to tell us what moves to play next?” Andy asked him. “Why intervene in a discussion about election and predestination that Quakers have no interest in? Why not listen longer, until you understand better what’s going on?”

Sam disregarded the chess and the theology under discussion. “Since we came to this country, we’ve been witnessing to our faith. In New England, we were hung for it by the Puritans.” Sam was studied in his Quaker history, but the two men, one older, one younger, were talking past one another now.

It was time to intervene, so I directed my comments to Sam. “But in the 1600s, nobody had any sense of the separation of church and state. When the Quakers ran Philadelphia, they kept the Anglicans out of office. Tolerance may be a virtue, but it wasn’t widely practiced, if you’re going to go back to 1670 or something.”

“Quakers stood for peace and toleration even then,” Sam informed me.

“And Quakers had to hire non-Quakers to police their borders in Pennsylvania, because they wouldn’t carry weapons,” I answered. “What’s the point of that?”

“Peace always has a point,” Sam responded. “Always has.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s talk about history. The Quaker inner light told some Quakers to witness to their faith in New England. This is three hundred and fifty years ago. After several warnings, some of them got hung by the Puritans. It was wrong. But it’s not that way now. The Puritans don’t run Boston. Quakers are entitled to say whatever they want. Nobody is getting hung anywhere around here.”

“I can witness to what’s inside me, that God put there,” Sam replied.

“You can. But I don’t always know where your inner light leads you,” Andy replied. “Maybe your inner light told you to come over and engage in our chess game, and our conversation. Maybe your inner light has questions, not answers,” Andy added, thinking over the possibilities. “But whatever your inner light says, I’m entitled to my Christian conscience. My conscience is informed by words, by scripture. And my Christian conscience is concerned, is raising red flags, that you’re preaching another gospel. It’s not Christ, crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. I have a problem with that. Your inner light and my conscience are not connecting.”

“I just wanted to make some friends,” Sam answered. “And play some chess. I don’t think you are acting out of love,” Sam replied. “So it wouldn’t matter how right you are. You’d still be a clanging gong or a crashing cymbal,” Sam asserted. His tone and expression were suggestive of someone who may have spent time in professionally-run focus groups, but Andy’s expression softened.

“How would I know what love is, if the Bible doesn’t tell me?” Andy asked. “You knew that, about clanging gongs and crashing cymbals, because it’s from First Corinthians 13 in the Bible.”

“Quakers know the Bible,” Sam answered. “Do you?”

That was it – Andy was now in full debate mode. “Maybe tomorrow your inner light will tell you that Buddha and Jesus are both great teachers, and we ought to respect and worship them both equally.” Andy replied. “Love means telling people the truth. Not the made-up truth, not the way-they-feel-today truth. Christ only, and him crucified for our sins, and raised from the dead on the third day for our justification. Grace only. Faith only. That kind of Christian truth. It’s the only Christian truth.”

“Quakerism is Christian,” Sam said. “That’s not made up truth, and I didn’t make it up today.” There was a moment when both Sam and Andy were silent, but were looking directly at each other.

“You said you weren’t born a Quaker. What is your background?” I asked.

“I’m Jewish,” Sam replied, turning to me.

“Mother and father?” I asked.

“Yes, and grandparents and great grandparents before them, pillars of the synagogue. We come from a line of rabbis, very learned, very well-known, from Poland and Lithuania,” Sam answered me.

It was my turn to smile. “Well, you’re more Jewish than I am. My father was Jewish, but not my mother.” I thought for a moment. “And no rabbis in my line, that I know of. Did you have family in Europe in the 1940s?”

“Yes,” Sam answered. “But not anymore. Some of my family got out. If they didn’t get out before World War II, they never got out.”

“Same for me,” I nodded. “And my family on my father’s side. Either you were out early, or not at all.”

Sam turned to Andy. The questions about his Jewish background seemed to enable him to become more composed, to stand on surer ground. “Okay, let’s talk about election and predestination. I have some questions. If I understood what you were saying from the beginning, we’re all predestined. There’s an election to grace, and an election to reprobation. If I die tonight, believing the wrong gospel, then I’ve been elected to reprobation. Do I have that correct?” Sam didn’t wait for Andy’s answer. Clearly, Sam’s reading knowledge was broad.

“My mistaken Quaker beliefs are the evidence of that, right? It’s not the true Christian faith, the right faith, the saving faith that I have. It’s a false gospel.” Again, Sam spoke quickly, didn’t wait long for any response from Andy, and continued.

“And you just explained that. You gave a thumbnail summary of the true gospel. Christ, and him crucified for our sins, and raised again on the third day for our justification. If I’m elect, at some point I’ll hear that saving gospel. I’ll respond. If I’m not, I won’t.”

“I don’t know those things,” Andy interjected. “God’s election is in the secret counsel of God. We don’t know that. The unsearchable counsel of his own will.”

“Okay,” Sam was talking very quickly now. “But you presented the gospel to me, the true gospel, the real one. At least in your view, the saving one. In nutshell form. It might be enough for me, this very night. You don’t know.”

“No,” admitted Andy. “I don’t know. And it is possible, that would be enough. People have come to Christ with less preaching than that.”

“But God knows. The Holy Spirit knows. if God determined that I’m reprobate, destined for perdition, he determined it before the beginning of time. I won’t ask what you were doing, presenting me the gospel. You wouldn’t know whether I’m elect. But God would know.” Sam waited.

Andy agreed, “yes, that’s true.”

“So, is God faking me out?” Sam asked. “Is God dangling something in front of me, that he already determined and predestined, by his own secret counsel long ages ago, that I could never accept?” Sam was getting wound up. “Is God saying, come one, come all, believe and be saved – but not so fast for you, Sammy boy!  It’s just for show when it comes to you, Sam.  Is that God’s shadow-play, at least for some of us? Because the really important decision is already in the books, made long, long ago. Before the beginning, God already decided. Made the decision for me. Any little born-again sermon you present now, after the big fact, the predestinating fact, is just eyewash.  It wouldn’t matter how I responded.” Sam concluded breathlessly but with a determined look and a steely glance at Andy.  “It’s a done deal, done long ago.”

“I can’t explain the secret counsel of God. God has the right to do with us as he sees fit,” Andy replied, settling into an armor-plated faith that had developed over long years of difficult circumstances. I noted that the word ‘logic’ was no longer part of Andy’s responses.

Sam’s mind was racing as well as his words. “We’re just chess pieces then. Like on the board. God moves us this way and that. We have no power to resist, no will to do so at all. Your knight does your will when you move him, no question asked.  Saved if you want him to be saved, lost if you want him to be lost.  Who cares what the knight wants?” Sam was vivid in his manner, visibly animated, with color rising into his cheeks. I thought I detected someone who might be on the spectrum, as in the autism spectrum, but if so, Sam was very high functioning, to say the least

“That’s not our doctrine,” Andy answered, summoning his own dignity. “Man retains responsibility for his acts, his deeds, his sins. His moral culpability.  His choices.” Andy was quiet but determined himself. Surely, our theology chess game had lost its game-like character.

“You say those words, but they aren’t important,” Sam answered. “It’s God’s hand that counts. Like this – I can move the pawns around too.” Sam leaned over to grab four or five of my black pawns. He pushed them forward simultaneously using both hands, two or three squares for each. “I can declare that these pawns retain their responsibility for their poor moves. I can declare I’m holding them accountable for their illegal moves. But those words don’t make any sense. I moved them,” Sam announced.

We all looked at my black pawns, spread carelessly across the board as if blown by random winds, staring in confusion and dismay at their white pawn counterparts. Sam continued leaning over the chess board, his hands now spread apart on the table, supporting his weight. “I now judge you,” Sam declared to the pawns, “for those very things I made you do.”  Indeed, the sprawled black pawns did look rather forlorn.

“Miserable wretches that they are, yet they are still my pawns,” I interrupted. “And I want them back where they belong.” I used both hands to carefully return my pawns to their original squares. “And I want my king standing up.” My king, knocked over by Andy’s demonstration, I retrieved and stood back in his place. “And I now return the white queen to her appropriate role, her powers, and her station in our game.” I picked up the white queen from her unlawfully seized estate on my king’s square and evicted her, reaching across the board to move her to her original square on her side of the chessboard. “Powerful indeed as she may be, she is still obliged to play by the rules.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” injected the man who looked like an automobile mechanic. “God made our wills. Freedom is essential to the will. It’s not a will, not a man’s will, if it’s not free.”

“Okay,” I said. “At least tell us your name, before you instruct us.”

“Sorry. Roy Lopez. Roy Lopez de Segura was the family name, but my grandfather shortened it.”

“In the interests of clarity for our conversation,” I proposed, “I’m going to step across some boundaries and ask your religious or theological background, without first engaging in the usual pleasantries. Before we hear you, we’d like to know a little about you.”

“Well, I’m a Pentecostal. A former Catholic. Is that enough?”

“That’s rather brief. It’s easier to understand someone’s statements about theology or religion if you know a little bit about them, where they’re coming from,” I encouraged.

“May we hear your personal testimony?” Andy seconded. “in a little more detail?”

“Okay” Roy tilted his head to one side, as if conceding a point. “Well, I dropped out of high school in tenth grade when I was 17 and joined the Navy. The Navy gave me a bunch of tests. They made me a machinist, taught me how to program a CNC machine. That’s a big machine that cuts and machines metal parts at very high speeds – it’s kind of a computer, kind of a robot, that you feed raw stock into at one end. The programming directs the cutting tools to make the specified cuts, and spit out the machined parts at the other. I got pretty good at it. When I came out of the Navy, I worked for about ten years as a machinist for a guy that was a maniac and very intense about everything, even whether your shirt was tucked in or not, so it was stressful. But he knew how to machine parts. We machined parts to tolerances down to a few microns, if that means anything. So after ten years I opened my own shop with two machines, took out some loans and lived on a friend’s couch for about a year. I ate peanut butter crackers and worked seven days a week, about 16 hours a day. I would machine any kind of part for any kind of customer. Choke tubes, something you put on the ends of shotguns to control the spray of the shot, for turkey hunters, were big when I started.

“I grew my business. I survived my office manager embezzling from me, big time. I survived the IRS putting liens on everything I owned. My business grew some more. After I while I had more machines than shop space. I outgrew one shop, then another, then another. By that time, I had about thirty employees and we had some big contracts. I got married – my wife already had children, and I acted like a father to them, for a long time. We bought a building for my business, and I had more machines and more employees. I got high-powered advice from people who have way more education than I have. I bought a big house for my wife and family. We took some big vacations.

“Then everything started collapsing. My father died. My mother died, and it was not easy for her at the end. That was disturbing. I had a lot of questions about that. My marriage collapsed. I started to have more and more questions. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. The better I was doing at business, the worse my life was going. I had been baptized in the Catholic church, but hadn’t stepped into one since I was about 12. But I started showing up in them sometime, on a Saturday, when no one was around, just to sit and think.

“I was out driving around one night, with no place to go and nothing to do. I went to a Christian church. I don’t even know what denomination. They had out a banner that said they had a speaker. I listened to the speaker, and he described my life. I can’t explain that. It was like he had a book, and he was reading my life from it. He invited me to come forward at the end, and I did. I was kind of doubtful about the whole thing, but I got up out of my seat and went up to the front and a couple of people prayed over me, and I received Jesus. I confessed my sins. I received Jesus as Lord. Not much more than that, with the people up front. Probably took about three minutes for them to lead me in the whole sinner’s prayer.

“After that, I went home. I lived alone in an apartment. I thought over what happened, what the speaker had said, and I thought about the prayer. I thought to myself, what he’s saying, about eternal life, that’s too important not to know. If something that important happened to me, I’d have to know. I’d have to feel something on the inside. That’s too important not to know on the inside.” Roy stopped to gather his thoughts.

“Well, then I knew. I knew it was real. I can’t tell you how exactly, but I knew. I knew it on the inside. After that, I started going to some different churches. Just drove to whatever church was close. I went to a lot of different churches. I wound up at a Pentecostal church. Now I’ve been there for years. Is that enough?”

“Yes, I guess it will have to be” I answered. “Since you’ve been listening for a while, you might as well air out your views. Our chess game has stalled.”

“Well, I think there’s moral freedom,” Roy stated in his friendly tone of voice, but with some authority underneath. He had the quiet authority of someone who, when he says things to people, they do what he says. “Absolute moral freedom is with God. Morally, our wills are subordinate to the purpose of life, the things God created us for. It’s a different kind of law. The law of the Spirit of Life. It sets us from the law of sin and death.”

“Hmmm,” I responded. “You just told me about free will, and then you just told me about the law of the Spirit of life. I’m a bit confused. Everyone else has made their demonstration right on the chessboard,” I offered. “Can you show us what you mean?”

“Well, I can’t really,” Roy explained. “Because pawns aren’t like people with free wills. Pieces on a chessboard don’t have the Holy Spirit. For me to demonstrate, the pawns would have to cooperate with me of their own free will. And receive the Spirit too. You can’t make analogies to a chess game about this.”

I was still intrigued by the possibility of a physical demonstration. “Okay,” I said. “Well, humor me. Let’s try anyway. I’ll be the free will hand on this queen’s pawn. We’ll leave open the question of whether or not the pawn can receive the spirit of chess. You make a move with my hand on the piece, guiding my hand. You have the absolute superior will. We’ll move it together, but my free will, created-for-a-purpose hand will be subordinate to your divinely-superior, absolute moral freedom hand. Demonstrate the law of the spirit of life. My humble pawn awaits, ever your servant.”

I put my hand on my queen’s pawn and then Roy did also. Roy’s hand was large, rather covering entirely my hand, but that didn’t seem to distract from the demonstration. God’s will should be larger than man’s, even where there’s cooperation. Roy and I together moved the black queen’s pawn forward one space, pawn to the queen three, P-Q3. It was awkward way of moving pieces, without a doubt.

“I have another issue with this demonstration,” I said to Roy. “Your hands are bigger than mine, and they look stronger. Even if there were room on the chessboard for our hands to both be on the same piece at the same time, how would I resist, if I wanted to move the piece to one square, and you wanted another?”

“You have to cooperate with grace,” explained Roy. “You can’t resist it. That’s a sin.”

“Cooperation with grace is easier said than done,” I observed, “unless grace makes itself clear. It seems hard for two hands to be moving the same piece. And If we conflicted on where to move the piece, I don’t think my will would be much of a decider. Wouldn’t it be easier if you directed my hand on the pawn? My hand would have the free choice of accepting your direction or not, if that’s your demonstration.”

Roy thought for a minute. “Yes, that would work. I’ll direct you with my choice for your pawn moves, and you pawn has the free will to accept or reject my direction.”

“But that raises a different problem,” Andy injected. “You (indicating me) aren’t playing anymore. It’s his (indicating Roy) game now.”

“Would that be a problem?” asked Roy.

“It would if I came to play Tom, and not you,” Andy answered. “Part of playing chess is who you’re playing with.”

We all stopped to think about that. “Is Andy having a chess game with Tom, if Roy is directing Tom’s moves?” I asked rhetorically.

“Let’s say that my pawn truly has the power to make its own decisions,” I suggested. “Imagine my little pawn, resisting the wisdom of God’s grace.” I looked over the board for a way to make my demonstration, and saw a demonstrative move clearly.

“My pawn is too proud to move forward only one square, to do its humble duty of defending the king’s pawn,” I argued to the group. “Rather, boldly, sinfully, it leaps forward two squares, thinking to place itself in the middle of the fray!” I moved my queen’s pawn forward one more square, slamming into its new square decisively, which admittedly, was a speculative gambit. I addressed my adventurous pawn. “You know what Luther said, don’t you – sin boldly, you little pawn, and believe more boldly still.”

Roy looked over the resulting position. “That move is going to make things very complicated.”

“That’s not the book line,” Sam opined.

“My queen’s pawn despises the book line,” I announced grandly. “It ventures to go where no pawn has gone before.”

“Your queen’s pawn is going to have a short, exciting life,” Andy observed, “situated on that square.”

“Its fate is sealed,” Roy asserted. “Not because of God’s will. But because of its own free choice. I tried to direct it toward a good end on Q3, but it would not. Proving that it’s will was, indeed, free.”

“But fatally weakened by sin and self-will,” Andy added.

“Couldn’t the Spirit move it to take the Q4 position?” I asked, directing the question to Roy. “Isn’t that what being Pentecostal is all about?”

“Being Pentecostal means having a personal experience of God, the Holy Spirit,” Roy answered. “Receiving the gifts of the Spirit today, because the gifts are for today.”

“Do we need to know what the pawn’s personal experience is, in order to move it?” Andy asked, smiling. “Does it have to have a vibrant, personal experience of chess? Or can it just move where it’s sent?”

I responded to Andy. “But the black queen’s pawn didn’t go where it was sent. It went beyond that. Your boring, obedient white pawns only do their duty. That’s it. Probably you decided it all for them, before the beginning of the game,” I teased.

Roy was good-natured and laughed quietly. “There is no substitute for personal experience. I see some possibilities for this pawn. Our spirit-filled little pawn will create counter play for black. And it won’t be in the book.”

I felt my point was made. So with a polite and rather formalistic chess apology, “J’adoube,” I confirmed my move by touching the pawn to adjust it in its new square, and settled my queen’s pawn on its new and dangerous position, indicating I really meant it this time. It was a speculative move giving rise to a complicated position.

La amenaza es mas fuerte que la ejecucion.” Roy observed in fluently articulated and flowing Spanish, rolling the words out slowly, like beautiful flowers being brought out one at a time from a bouquet. “The threat is stronger than the execution. That will give white something to think about.”

“A good end is ordained here,” I predicted. “The steady pressure of black’s counter play will bring about a glorious victory,” I looked at Andy in a challenging manner, befitting warriors of the theological chess board.

“I predict the black pieces are going to be raptured off the board as I capture them,” replied Andy.

“The Rapture is all at once,” Roy said in a rather explanatory tone, as if he were telling a group of nice, but uninformed agnostics what the correct sequence of events was for end-time. “All believers are taken together, not one at a time.”

“Wait,” I interrupted, “Wait! Couldn’t the rapture happen right now? It comes with no warning, isn’t that correct?” I could not pass by an opportunity to discuss end-time theology.

“Yes,” Roy replied. “1 Thessalonians chapter 4, verses 16-17. All believers.”

“This is before the Great Tribulation? Correct?” I asked Roy. Andy was looking at me. He recognized my latent, but never entirely discarded interior persona of an attorney conducting cross-examination, on anybody, at any time.

“Yes,” Roy answered.

“And the Jews are left to face the Great Tribulation? Correct?” I asked.

Roy nodded yes again. “Yes, all believers are raptured, before the Tribulation.”

“A pre-trib man, indeed.” I observed. “So now, I have a question. I’m half Jewish. Do I go because I’m a believer? Or do I stay, because of my Jewish identity. Sam here is fully Jewish by birth, and a Quaker by belief. Not one who gives much credence to any end-time theories. Does he go with the believers in the Rapture, or does he stay for the Tribulation with the Jews?”

Roy realized that I had set up the question. “What are you?” he asked me bluntly.

“Postmillennial, since you ask. But my question remains.” All of us were looking at Roy, whose considerations now took his attention from the board. My queen’s pawn, at least for a few moves, would have to fend for itself. Sam was also looking at Roy expectantly, interested in his response. Roy was hesitant. I addressed the group generally. “May the court direct the witness to answer the question.”

“That’s above my pay grade,” Roy answered after some thought. He looked at Sam and I, and it was clear he could have made some finer distinctions in his non-answer answer, but thought better of it.

Andy looked over the board and decided to spare my queen’s pawn momentarily, apparently to make a big, speculative move himself.

“P-Q4. Game on,” he proclaimed, in a low, sobering tone of challenge accepted, moving his own queen’s pawn to his Q-4 square. As he made the move, we all paused to study the board – complications abounded as we each silently puzzled through a variety of possible combinations. I had at least half a dozen plausible moves, and each of those moves theoretically spun into half a dozen more.

“It’s complicated,” Sam said after a minute or two, still studying the board. “It’s like listening to the arguments about vaccination,” he said, as if he were addressing no one, but simply talking out loud to himself. “You hear so much stuff. Then you hear something rebutting what you just heard, then you hear something rebutting that. The more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. You can take with either pawn, take with either knight, castle, or pin with the bishop.”

Oblivious to us, Sam put his hand across the board, pointing to the moves and squares, touching the pieces, an act that clearly annoyed Andy. “Castling is the safest, but it probably loses a pawn.” Andy’s facial expression, signaling Sam to stop making suggestions about my next move, was ignored. ‘If he takes your queen pawn and you recapture, when he takes your king’s pawn your knight will be under the gun.”

“You know –“ Andy was about to say something pointed to Sam, but he didn’t get the chance to finish.

“You shouldn’t get vaccinated,” Roy asserted. “Nobody should. It has mercury in it, lots of bad stuff. Formaldehyde. Glycol. Lots of bad stuff.”

I had been pretty calm about Sam’s advice on the chessboard, even if it bothered Andy. I had been reasonably calm about Roy’s eschatology. On the issue of vaccination, my calm was evaporating.

“You’re not a doctor, though,” I told Roy. “So now you’re telling us what somebody else told you. But the person who gave you your vaccination information isn’t here for me to question.”

Roy was becoming accustomed to my methods. “Am I in trouble here? Just telling you things you can look up for yourself.”

“But you don’t do chemistry or medicine by yourself, do you? You don’t treat yourself on-line?” I looked at Roy, but he made no immediate answer. “Do you think I could do a good job, machining complex parts, to demanding tolerances, if I studied it hard for a week, on-line?”

I looked at Roy again to give him an opportunity to respond. It’s a rule of cross-examination, that the interrogator should complete his question, and stop talking, so the witness can fully answer, without either talking over the other. It’s difficult for a court reporter to take down the words of two people talking at once.

“I trust the people who tell me things,” Roy replied, both guarded, and still friendly, with the confidence of someone who deals with people and friction every day.

“What does the Bible say?” I asked. My move was decided. I played knight captures king’s pawn with a flourish of my hand taking his pawn with my knight. My queen’s pawn was leading a precarious existence on my Q-4 square, but he lived for another day. Andy looked as he were expecting my move, and knew what he wanted to do, but was going to take one last, cautious, comprehensive, Reformed view of the chessboard before doing anything rash.

Roy was puzzled. “On vaccination?”

“On obeying those in authority over us. You know, everyone is to submit himself to the governing authorities. For there is no authority, except what God has established.”

“Then you do everything the government says, all the time?” Roy asked. “Whatever they say, you believe. You agree with it, no matter what?”

“I think the medical authorities are the authority God has instituted. On this issue, at least. And I think when people don’t get vaccinated, it puts all of us at risk. It puts children at risk. Rulers hold no terror, for those who do right.”

“There are people in my church who don’t teach it that way,” Roy replied.

“If you owe taxes, pay taxes,” I answered. “If you owe honor, give honor. If you owe vaccinations, get vaccinated.”

Roy was not offended. “Okay,” he said, clearly a man used to receiving advice and retaining his time and his right to evaluate it. “I see your point. I’ll think about it.” He paused. “Mas la sabiduria es justificada de todos sus hijos. Wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Our further play was interrupted by another pair of unusual visitors who walked over to crowd into the circle around our booth. An Orthodox priest, wearing a black cassock, came into our circle, accompanied by a boy, clearly his son, about five years of age. We stopped for a moment to meet and greet our new visitors. The priest’s style of outerwear made it impossible for him to slip into the back of any group. We all stopped to look at them, make some room at the circle surrounding the table, and to offer some initial greetings and self-introductions.

“Hello,” he introduced himself. “My name is Lewis Warder. This is my son, Nick.” Nick was of average size for a five year old boy, blonde-haired, bright-eyed, dressed casually, holding his father’s hand, with his eyes and attention on the chess board. “He’s five years old. He recently learned to play chess. When I told him people played chess in here, he pretty much dragged me in.”

Nick didn’t say anything, but his enthusiasm and fascination for the game were visible in his expression. “I know what our board position is,” I announced. “So we can pick it up again later. Nick, would you like to play chess?” I asked.

Even before Nick answered by nodding his head, with a quick look to his father, who also nodded silently, I began returning the pieces to their original squares. Andy stood up from his seat in the booth and moved out of the way, indicating with a nod of his head Nick should take a seat. Nick said nothing at all, but released his father’s hand and fairly jumped into Andy’s seat. He had the white pieces, and in a matter of seconds, played out his first move.

As we began to play, it was evident that Nick knew the moves of chess and the powers of the pieces perfectly. It was also evident after a few moves, that he did not yet have the knack of considering his adversary’s moves, or understanding that he would have to take defensive measures when his pieces were threatened. He disregarded any attacking moves I made, so as the game progressed, I gradually began to accumulate an advantage in pawns and pieces, because Nick never retreated any piece he moved or took other measures to avoid capture, or at least recapture where a more experienced player would exchange pieces.

But Nick was obviously enjoying himself tremendously, and his bright eyes roamed over the board, with his small face and stature situating him somewhat like an owl on his bench seat, with his head just a bare foot above the level of the table and board, peering at the pieces. He jumped his knights, moved his bishops on diagonals with reckless abandon, maneuvered his queen all over the board, brought his rooks into play, and castled his king. Nick showed no signs of distress when I would capture these pieces, disregarding my threats of their capture, or my moves to chase his pieces back from the squares he had selected.

Andy, Sam and Roy watched the board with interest, along with Father Lewis, who was not concentrating on the board so much as his son. Sam turned from the chess board from time to time to look at Father Lewis and his vestments. “You’re an Orthodox priest?” Sam asked, and Father Lewis nodded. It was clear that that Father Lewis thought it was part of his duty to ‘show the colors’ of his faith.  The Orthodox priest was close to six feet tall, slender, with dark blond hair of medium length with the visible beginning of dark blond curls, and a medium length beard of similar dark-blonde color, trimmed with shorter, tighter curls.

Father Lewis nodded, “Yes,” he answered, and named for us the church where he ministered. We had a brief exchange about the location of his church. I was familiar with the general location, but did not realize there was an Orthodox church situated on the hill where it was located, set back from the highway. “It’s hidden by the trees,” he explained. “It’s not that large.”

“We’re talking about free will,” Sam said. “What do you think about it?” Sam’s opening conversational gambit may have been a little awkward, but we were all interested in hearing what an Orthodox priest had to add to our conversation. “Do people have free will before they’re Christians? Do they become Christians because of their free will?”

Father Lewis was not intimidated by declaring his faith in front of a group of strangers. Like pastors generally, he was professionally accustomed to speak to a group. “Our existence is contingent – it’s a gift from God,” he addressed us, not quite on point. “Our existence participates in God’s existence. Sin moves us away from that participation and towards non-existence. Christ became what we were, in order to make us what He is. Sin obstructs that. The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace that might seem to infringe on man’s freedom. We use the word synergy. It means fellow-worker. We are to be fellow-workers with divine grace.”

“But that doesn’t quite answer the question,” Andy observed. “Prior to faith, do men move and act because they’re exercising free will, or do they move and act because they can’t escape sin? The point under discussion is the movement from unbelief to faith. Everyone agrees that the Spirit works in believers.”

I listened, noting Nick’s last move, who was used to hearing his father speak and paid no attention to him. Turning my attention to the board, and unlike a five-year old, even one skilled at chess, I moved my bishop back from the attack of his pawn.

“We accept grace as a free gift. We guard it. Men are moral agents but that  isn’t the first point. God sent Moses into Egypt to lead His people out of bondage,” Father Lewis responded. “He didn’t go there to improve their role as moral agents. God leads with grace.  He doesn’t impose it on the unwilling. Christ enters our world to lead us out of sin and death – into permanent existence, into being.”  Father Lewis paused.  “If I may, our problem isn’t death, because of sin. It’s sin, because of death. The healing of our troubled wills completes the Exodus.”  He gathered his thoughts again, a careful speaker. “We commune and exist with God in Christ, who ended death by his death. The resurrection unifies the disconnected and piecemeal acts of our lives.  Some of those acts are described as good, some described as bad – as if our wills had good days and bad days. God’s grace, when freely accepted, is an existential change.  It’s not another reform movement.”  Father Lewis paused once again.  “If I may, when death goes out the window, sin will go with it. Moral agency is perfected in our lives when Christ destroys death in our lives.  Our communion with God is the cure to the problem. ”

Father Lewis directed his patient, well-rehearsed answer directly to the group of adults, paying no attention to the board and only brief attention to his son. Father Lewis was not a chess player – he never looked once at the positions that developed or the moves either his son or I played.

“Describing the will before someone is saved is different than describing it afterwards,” Andy observed. “The natural mind is hostile to God.”

Father Lewis waited until he was sure Andy had finished. “Our wills are not the core of our being.” Father Lewis paused; there was a practiced rhythm to his speaking. “God is the core of our existence.” He allowed us time, as he might any congregation on any Sunday, to digest his words. “Christianity is not a moral improvement society.” Father Lewis concluded his answer on a definite, declarative note. “The focus of Christian life is unity with God.” His tone was gentle, pastoral, kind, unusually so, for a fairly young man, probably less than 40.  “The fear of death moves us in the wrong direction.   We don’t live in our original destiny, of unselfish love.  The knowledge of death, the expectation of death, changes us.  That is what we inherit from Adam and Eve.  The expectation of death. After that, comes sin.  In the Orthodox understanding, death is the cause, and sin is the result.”

Andy’s expression suggested he thought the last exchange left open several questions, but he said nothing else. Within a short time, I won my game with Nick – he moved quickly, and so did I, until his king was surrounded by my pieces with no place left to move and no forces left to defend.

I began setting up the pieces for the next chess game. “Do you think the pieces care, how they get on the starting squares?” I asked rhetorically. I stood up, and motioned for Roy to sit down so he could play Nick, which was obviously what Nick wanted.

We watched Roy play Nick for a few minutes. Roy was more accommodating to Nick’s no-defense style of chess play, so the game didn’t proceed as quickly as mine did. Once again Nick was visibly delighted, fascinated with the powers of the chess pieces as he moved them across the board. His mind, perhaps childish in his emotions but not in his calculations, soaked up the combinations of the pieces and their possible moves, the possible responses, and the resulting positions.

As Roy developed a winning advantage against Nick, he directed some comments to Father Lewis. “Father,” he said, “looking at the way you are dressed, reminds me of my experience in the church when I was a boy. That was the Catholic Church, but I think there’s some similarities between the Orthodox Church and Catholic Church. No one ever abused me or any such thing. No one I knew or even heard of at that time, was ever abused. The priests that we had were conscientious men of God who cared about people.”

Father Lewis nodded, waiting, as we all were, to hear where Roy was going with his comments.

“My family was religious in the ordinary way Catholics were. We went to Mass, we went on Easter, we went on Christmas. Some of the women in my family went on holy days and feast days.” Roy looked up at Father Lewis. “You have a small congregation, so maybe what I have to say next doesn’t apply to you and your congregation. But I can tell you what was going on in my family. We were getting our tickets punched.”

Father Lewis nodded, still waiting.

“If you went on Christmas, you got your ticket punched. If you went on Easter, you got your ticket punched. If you went to Mass, if you went to confession, if you said a dozen Hail Marys and Our Fathers, you got your ticket punched. We were loyal Catholics. That’s what loyal Catholics did.”

“It can get rote,” Father Lewis admitted, “for every faith.”

“We had a man in our congregation, he seemed old to me then, but he was probably about 40. His name was Darren. He was super-active in the church. He was super active in the community. He was a funeral director, knew everybody, charter member of the Knights of Columbus, of Rotary, of the local business chamber, so on and so forth. He was practically the mayor of our town. He had a beautiful wife, no children, but his wife was sweet and absolutely an angel. Everybody knew him, everybody loved and respected him. But he got involved in an affair. It came out. I guess they fought. So without further ado, he took himself out to the river, and shot himself. Left a nice little note for whoever would find his body.”

Father Lewis nodded again.

“After nearly 40 years of Catholic teaching, that’s what he did. Shot himself. He had a wonderful funeral Mass. I think nearly 800 people attended. They had to make special arrangements for all the people who came to his funeral at his church. They had to get people in the help with parking, all that. People gave all sorts of money in remembrance. They developed funds and foundations in his name.”

Father Lewis just listened.

“I didn’t understand much of any of that as a child,” Roy said. “Maybe I was ten or eleven. But one thing I more or less did understand, because I saw it going on in my own family. My own family had troubles too. And my extended family, they had their troubles too. We were lower on the social scale than Darren, pretty much at the other end of it, but we had no shortage of troubles.” Roy paused.

“After forty years of getting his ticket punched at a big, organized church, when he went to shoot himself, not once did he think about God.”

Father Lewis visibly exhaled, and his face changed expression, from sober to sad.

“I bet it didn’t even occur to him, that God might have something to do with his life, or his sin. I bet it didn’t even occur to him, to think about God. God’s judgment, God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, God’s reconciliation – I don’t think Darren gave it a thought. I think he was embarrassed and humiliated. I think he thought to himself, if I ever get caught having this affair, I’ll just kill myself. That’s what I’ll do.” Roy paused. “He was the master of everything. He had a plan for every contingency. And so that’s what he did.”

Father Lewis simply said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“My family was more or less the same, with all our troubles. Nobody killed themselves, but we went through all kinds of trials and tribulations. All kinds of sins and separations, all kinds of money problems, every kind of problem. My family was evicted three times before I was twelve. My father must have had ten different jobs, and he couldn’t keep one more than a year. We had to move around town and live with relatives. And all that time, we went to church, we got our ticket punched. And not for one minute, did anybody in my family, extended or otherwise, think that God had anything at all to do with what was going on. If you had said to anybody in my family, through all of this trauma, ‘God has something to do with this’ – they would have looked at you like you had two heads. Probably you were drunker than my father, to say such a thing. We were all like Darren, in our own way.”

“It can be hard to bring faith into the lives of people,” Father Lewis admitted.  “That’s my job, every day.”

Meanwhile, Nick was undeterred by his adversary’s superior force and maneuvered his remaining pieces around the board with gleeful abandon.

“Do you know what would happen now, at the Pentecostal Church I go to?” Roy asked. “If my marriage was failing, or my business was failing? Or I was caught out in a sin?” Roy paused. “Or if I couldn’t stop drinking? Or if I had cancer?” Roy paused to make a move against Nick, promoting a pawn to a queen so that Roy had two on the board, that began a series of routine moves leading to checkmate. “Everybody would gather around me. Ten people, twenty people, maybe more. They would lay hands on me. They would speak in tongues. They would pray over me. They would get slain in the spirit. Maybe they would be fainting. But they would care. It would matter to them. And after that, after all that praying, with hands on my head and hands on my shoulder and hands holding my hands, I would know, I would know, that God cared about what was happening to me. Maybe it would be a little emotional. Maybe it would be a little disorganized. But I would know that God cared about my marriage, or my business, or my sin, or my health. I would know that the Spirit of God was there.”

“The love of Christ manifests through the love of others,” Father Lewis said. “We all depend on it.”

“So, I mean to be respectful to you, Father,” Roy said. “I see you’re a man of God. But I have a problem with big, organized church. I have a problem with getting your ticket punched, and never, not for one instant, thinking that God has anything to do with anything outside of the four walls. Outside of the walls and the Masses and the statues and the pictures and the paintings and the saints and the rosaries and the confessionals and the processions and the vestments and the fonts and the bells and the incense.”

Father Lewis didn’t say anything, only looked down at his own vestments without comment. We observed that Roy was talking not only to us, but to others, perhaps family members long gone, perhaps even Darren, perhaps his mother.

After we allowed Roy to recover quietly his emotions, and conclude his chess game with Nick, I asked a question of Roy. “We understand what your saying. But let me ask you a different question.”

Roy nodded slowly. He clearly was cautious now with answering my questions.

“What you described in church, in your service, with people laying hands on you to pray. That involves ten or twenty people? Maybe thirty? And some of them are speaking in tongues, right? Maybe spiritually you sense what they’re saying, but it’s a spiritual gift, a very private language. Where you work, you’re the boss, right? There’s a structure there – you speak in a common language. You speak Spanish, but generally, I’ll bet you talk to people in English, because you want everyone to be on the same page, getting the same instructions.”

Roy nodded. “Yes, that’s true. Even with the employees who speak Spanish, I speak English. Written instructions go out with every job. The instructions are very detailed, step by step, station by station, sometimes hour by hour, and they’re written in English. Everybody can see them – they get posted. Everybody working on a particular job has to read them and know what they say. The machines are programmed in a high-level language – it’s English – along with symbols for CNC programming. The specs are very detailed, they’re design drawings, but the notes are written in English. The purchase orders are very detailed and written in English. We have procedures and manuals for everything. The procedures and the manuals are written in English. It is very regimented.” Roy smiled to joke, “the only person who gets to speak in Spanish to lay hands on a part for healing is me, and it’s a last resort.”

“And you expect people to follow the instructions,” I asked Roy. “And maybe that’s even more than 30 people, when you add in suppliers and customers and all the other people involved in getting raw materials, and producing parts, and documenting them, and testing them and shipping them. But the instructions are the instructions, because they’re your instructions, and you’re the boss?”

Roy nodded affirmatively, getting up for Nick’s next chess game.

“So there’s some value to organization. That’s all I’m saying,” I told Roy. “There’s some value to structure.”

“Yes, there is,” Roy said. “But only if you are getting the fundamental job done. If we did all that stuff, and didn’t actually make a part, that would be a waste. You have to be changed on the inside, or haven’t made a part at all. If your family is getting evicted, or you’re drunk every night, or you’re shooting yourself over an affair, or you’re dying of cancer, and you don’t even think about God at all, then the part isn’t getting made.”

Sam stepped in to play Nick, who did not appear even remotely unhappy about his loss. Nick’s fingers raced across the board as he repositioned his pieces in their starting squares for the next game. Sam was also nimble and efficient at assembling the pieces on their squares – he was an experienced chess player.

Father Lewis patiently watched his son’s chess adventures commence again with a third opponent. It wasn’t long before Sam was winning against Nick, for the same reasons as in Nick’s previous games – Nick didn’t like defending his pieces as much as he liked moving them around, as if they were his soldiers, or acrobats, or mounted steeplechase competitors. Sam and Nick played very quickly and concluded their game in a few minutes. Nick had an unusual ability for a novice player of grasping that pieces like a queen could move backwards, just as far and fast as when moved forward. Nick propelled his queen across wide expanses of the board, side to side and front to back, while Sam was collecting his undefended pieces.

Sam stood up after his game concluded, but Nick stayed seated. “It’s time for us to go now,” Father Lewis told Nick. “There’s other things we have to do.”

“I want to play again!” Nick told his father. It was the first sentence that he uttered.

“I’m sorry, Nick,” his father answered. “These men want to keep playing among themselves. And there’s not time to keep playing more games. You’ve already played three times. That’s a lot. That’s enough for now.”

“There’s time!” Nick fairly shouted. “There’s lots of time!”

Father Lewis took his son’s hand in a no-nonsense sort of grip. “You’ll get to play again,” he said. Father Lewis didn’t pull Nick away from the table, but Nick’s face and his father’s reflected the fact that Nick was checkmated and he knew it. His face changed back to his normal, alert, wide-eyed five year old expression, preoccupied with whatever was immediately in front of him and available for his exploration, but necessarily within the universe of what his father permitted. There was no possibility of further appeal or delay.

So father and child, both apparently satisfied with the encounter, happily bid us adieu with Father Lewis’ ‘God bless you’ parting benediction, and ambled off, hand-in-firm-hand, to their next encounter. We continued playing among ourselves for about half an hour, and then Roy and Sam took their leave, one by one, like Nick, to find their next engagements. Andy and I reassembled the position of our prior game. We finished it with a rather perfunctory draw, but not much further discussion. We concluded with an arrangement as to when we would meet to play again.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

[*Note: Father Lewis’ comments in the foregoing vignette were derived from a variety of sources, but one in which should be acknowledged is Father Stephen Freeman’s blog, found at will.

Another, rather eccentric source for Father Lewis’ comments is found in The Slavery of Death, by Richard Beck, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014.

A source I relied on for some of the references to Quaker history is William Penn A Life by Andrew R. Murphy, Oxford University Press, 2019.

A source I relied on for the presentation of arguments concerning predestination is The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1932.

Some elements of Roy Lopez’ dialogue are sourced from the Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Parente et al. (trans. Doronzo), Imprimatur: Moyses E. Kiley, Archiepiscopus Milwaukiensis, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951.

I express my gratitude to each author.  Of course any errors found in my characters’ dialogue are entirely my responsibility.]


My father, Jack Wolpert, was a dentist. He took Wednesday afternoons off, as do many dentists, do because he had to work Saturdays. When I was about eight years old, circa 1959-1960, my father began to pick me up from school himself on Wednesday afternoons, rather than me riding the bus home, to go bowling. At the time, I attended a Quaker school, Plymouth Meeting Friends School, in Plymouth Meeting, PA, still operating at its original site.

The Friends School there was founded in 1780. At the time I attended, about 1956 to 1961, it provided Quaker education for children of elementary school age, with the clear expectation that after sixth grade, the student would be sent to one of the private schools in the area, a number of which were part of something called the Inter-Academic league around the Philadelphia area, known colloquially as the Inter-Ac.

My parents were committed to the idea of the best education for their children, and had visited several schools to talk with their educators before selecting Quaker education and Plymouth Meeting for my younger brother Lynn and me. I don’t know how old the campus is (the website is discreetly silent on the topic) but it must be very old indeed, with stone buildings, walls, and sheds that are models of colonial Quaker construction, the type of which is visible in many locations around the Delaware Valley. Once in first grade, every Thursday morning we attended Quaker meeting, with its very distinctive format and spiritual character and ambience.

When Wednesday afternoon came, I waited for my father with joy and expectation; if there is anything better for a boy’s soul than doing something with his father, I can hardly think of it. When I saw him walking across the open playground and courtyard from the parking lot to meet me on a Wednesday afternoon, I remember the anticipation, excitement, love, and hero worship that combine together in the heart of a child.

We lived in Lansdale at the time, in Montgomery County. Bowling was very popular in the late 1950’s – bowling alleys were scattered across the county. There were two bowling alleys in Lansdale, one called ‘Lans-Bowl’ in the middle of town and another, newer bowling alley on the outskirts, whose name escapes me. At some point a few years later a huge bowling alley and entertainment center, with more than 120 bowling alleys, was constructed in Willow Grove on the site of the former Willow Grove amusement park. But I suspect that economically, it was a little too much, and other things were starting to develop in the 1960s that would diminish the attention bowling commanded in the eye of the general public.

Bowling alleys have a very distinct smell. Whether it is the wooden lanes, maple or pine boards, the lacquer or varnish finish, the pins, the pinsetters and the lubricating oil used for them, the snack bar, the bowling balls themselves, the smell of the electronics of the pinball machines, the smell of the felt on the billiards tables, all combine to make a distinctive bowling-alley aroma. Then or now, if blindfolded and led into a bowling alley, if you were ever a bowler you would know immediately where you were, even at midnight. The daily noise of a bowling alley is child-friendly. Since the balls are rolling loudly down the lane and making that hitting or crashing sound as they collide with the pins, there was no need for my father ever to tell me to be quiet. If you’re a kid, you can shout or run in a bowling alley.

My father was a good bowler without being spectacular. He was not a large man, 5 ‘8” tall and weighing at that time about 160 pounds, being about 1 5 pounds overweight; he could roll a 16 pound ball down the alley and when he hit the head pin exactly right in the pocket between the head pin and the three pin, roll a thundering strike, with the pins exploding into spinning cartwheels at the end of the alley. I was a good bower for a child. I once rolled a game of 164, which for me was so dramatic that I filled out a half-sheet of paper when we returned home with the legend ‘164’ in large numbers and posted it on my bulletin board, where it stayed for years, ‘my record.’

My father encouraged and congratulated me if I did well and made helpful suggestions if I didn’t do well. As a ‘sports dad’ he was close to ideal, never terribly upset over the outcome of his bowling or mine. I had a similar experience with him playing little league baseball – encouraging, but never critical. He never expected me to excel in sports and wasn’t living vicariously through me on any athletic field.

My father could be quite philosophical, and take a long, contemplative overview on many subjects. Later on, as I grew older, we would also go to bowling alleys to shoot pool, another popular activity of the 1960s. By this time I was in my teens, and would grow very irritated at myself if I missed a shot. My father never criticized me for missing a shot at pool, but he did criticize me for being self-critical and irritated at myself for missing. My father bought my brother and I go-carts one Christmas, and would load them into the station wagon and take us to an abandoned suburban housing development in Montgomeryville that had a paved circular road; he would stand and watch us for hours, racing our go-carts around the circle, and never seemed bored or impatient. The problems in our family were not in the area of recreational activities.

There were no serious conversations that we had, in all the years that my father took me to go bowling or to shoot pool on a Wednesday afternoon. But there was some cumulative effect to it in my emotional life. After my parents divorced, and I had lived with my mother, and then moved back with my father, I was emotionally upset. When I was 15 years old, I went to my father and told him that “I needed some reassurance.” I don’t think there was any particular incident that caused me to say those words on that particular day, but it was the accumulation of emotional difficulty arising out of my parents’ divorce, and the unsuccessful efforts of my mother to provide, first to my brother, and then to me, an emotionally stable home, which was why I was back living my father.

My mother had an alcohol problem at the time and like many people with alcohol problems, had more underlying emotional needs which my father had not responded to in the years they were married. Whether my father could have responded to my mother’s needs, whether those needs were themselves only emotional or also spiritual, whether my father also had emotional and spiritual needs, is beyond the scope of this short memoir.

On the day of my request for reassurance, my father and I took a ride in the car together. Our ride had overtones, a kind of background coloration, of the years that he had come to pick me up to go bowling at Plymouth Meeting Friends. We didn’t have any place in particular to go, so we drove around, talking, until we stopped in some parking lot somewhere and talked some more. By the end of our talk, probably lasting about ninety minutes, I was, at least temporarily, over my crisis. My father could be stable, and he was on that day. Whatever was going on, the world was not turning upside down altogether. Like a day when I was eight and he came for me to go bowling, his presence in my life was not capable of substitution or replacement.

Years later, I began dating my wife, Erma. I am nine years older than Erma, so at the time in 1982 or 1983, she was 22 or 23 years old and I was 31 or 32. Erma’s childhood and family life had been enormously emotionally traumatic. Soon after we started dating, she began to experience, uncertainly, anxiety, depression, and the need for reassurance. I knew what to do at those times. I had a model. We would drive around talking, because we would have no particular place to go. Often, we would wind up in the parking lot of a local restaurant, often it was a Howard Johnson’s. We would talk.

Erma would express her feelings of uncertainty and doubt, which were deep feelings with deep roots. I would talk to her, to persuade her that the world was not turning, on that particular day, altogether upside down. We had many such conversations in the years we were dating, until we reached the time that she was emotionally ‘ready to go’ and we married. Once we reached our wedding day, it was a wonderful day. She never wanted to take her wedding dress off. And on wedding day, I did not think even one time about the conversations we had engaged in, sitting in parking lots in Howard Johnson’s; I did not think even one time about bowling with my father or the conversations I had with him. I had just married a beautiful girl, it was our wedding day, and I was looking forward into the future.

In honor of that day, I have composed a short love poem:

To Erma,

On our wedding day your white dress

Was your robe, your wings, your purpose and your glory;

Veil and lace, queen’s bouquet in hand, surrounded by grace,

Inspired and expectant, your protectors yielded you to me.

Trauma and tragedy, wilds and wilderness forgotten,

Words now of love and loyalty, of passion and partnership,

And words would follow, of tenderness, of anger, of forgiveness,

of tears and breaking water and gripping knuckles,

Sealed in birth pains times four.

Your wedding dress was your flag, your symbol,

your gift, a cloth and lace ring given in pledge to me,

your giftwrapping from God, delivered to me at an altar.

With all my love in return,



John Locke on individual conscience and the question of a Christian commonwealth

Generally and deservedly, John Locke is remembered and more importantly, his thought and philosophy influences and directs, as a political philosopher. Locke scholars may write about his theology, but it would be a long and difficult search to find a church where John Locke’s religious thought is preached or presented under his name. Locke’s influence is great, but for secular reasons.

But for the sake of the holy city of God, revealed to us in the Book of Revelation, I want to consider him as a theologian. From my perspective, his theological magnum opus is a “Letter Concerning Toleration,” published in 1689. He wasn’t the first to write on the point of toleration of differing views – John Milton and many Quakers, including William Penn, precede him on the subject. Locke certainly wrote at length in other settings about his religious or philosophical beliefs. But Locke’s presentation in a Letter Concerning Toleration presents something that is essential for postmillennial eschatology.

Locke begins by attacking the hypocrisy of persecuting others of a different religious group, while leaving equally great or worse sins unmolested within one’s own religious grouping. He reflects upon the theme Jesus enunciated in his parable about removing the beam from one’s own eye, before attending to the cinder in our brother’s eye. Locke argues for what we would call today the separation of church and state. We are encountering today why there may be some long-term and structural problems with that philosophy, but anything political and legal that has worked for hundreds of years should not be discarded, or even amended lightly. We only improve on it, if we build from it.

Locke’s argument that the power of the “magistrate” (the executive power, the power of the government as a whole, to make and enforce law) reaches only to civil concerns, rests on considerations which he enumerates. First, the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate. This is one of Locke’s primary arguments because it was one of the fundamental belief systems that was held by people across the religious spectrum, from Catholics to Lutherans and Anglicans, to Presbyterians and Calvinists, Pilgrims and Puritans. The business of government entailed the salvation of souls as its first responsibility; there was no separation of church and state – the church and the state were alternate forms of the same authority and responsibility to govern. The alternative was anarchy, violence and famine.

“Faith is not faith without believing,” Locke wrote. If we offer a worship that we ourselves do not believe, we are simply adding to our other sins the sin of hypocrisy. Lock’s second argument follows the first: “true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. . . . Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgment that they have framed of things.”

Inward judgment of the mind and soul is inseparable from postmillennial theory; moving toward a Christian society which reflects the pleasure and purpose of our Lord Jesus, requires interior conviction. If actions are not truly voluntary, then what is the point? If you know who Jesus who is, and what he did for you, you will love him, and love him enormously. Otherwise, all of Christianity appears to be a mass delusion and religious precepts are so many obstacles to sidestep, or even to become the subject of caustic cable television entertainment.

The problem Locke encountered was not an argument between a Christian and an atheist; it was a violent and angry dispute between and among Christians, that intermixed religious doctrine and political power. Locke pointed out that the power of the magistrate was to receive obedience and compel it with the sword, but not to establishing articles of faith by force of law. “For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent; because they are not proper to convince the mind.”

Locke pointed out that if people were compelled to follow the religion of their government, whatever that may be, “In the variety and contradiction of opinions in religion, the princes of this world are as much divided as in their secular interests.” One’s salvation would be dependent on where one was born. Born into a country where “the prince” (the government) held and enforced the correct and true theology leading to eternal life, then you would be saved. Otherwise, if you born in the wrong country and the wrong religious view were imposed and enforced, tough luck. As Locke succinctly described, “men would owe their eternal happiness or misery to the places of their nativity.”

There is no substitute for voluntary participation, and as John Locke, theologian, told us, there is no substitute for interior faith. We cannot move spiritually without it. If we are called to join together as one body in Christ, to move toward one holy city, we do so on a basis that requires no sword of compulsion. Secular government cannot take us there.

Locke explained, that we would need to be –

“. . . truly evangelical, yet if I be not thoroughly persuaded thereof in my own mind, there will be no safety for me in following it. No way whatsoever that I shall walk in against the dictates of my conscience, will ever bring me to the mansions of the blessed. I may grow rich by an art that I take not delight in; I may be cured of some disease by remedies that I have not faith in; but I cannot be saved by a religion that I distrust, and by a worship that I abhor. It is vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man’s profession. Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God.”

Procuring acceptance by God was essential to Locke. Locke perceived the gathering of those who sought such acceptance, inward faith, to be immune from the sword of the magistrate. It is the understanding that girds our Constitution and the First Amendment now.

It wasn’t Locke’s concern to contemplate how the various gatherings of those who sought the acceptance of God, might cooperate or build a better civil society, might cooperate to build a better self-governing community. In order to separate church and state, you have to pull them apart. You may want to put them together again later, but in a different way. Locke was pointing out something that has gotten lost in our increasingly secular public culture; the original problem wasn’t the confrontation of atheists and Christians, it was the confrontation between various groups of Christians.

Locke was opposed to Christian theocracy for necessary reasons. Among those reasons was the conduct of Christ, which Locke invoked directly and theologically.

“But there is absolutely no such thing, under the Gospel, as a Christian commonwealth. There are, indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ; but they have retained their ancient forms of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may attain eternal life. But he instituted no commonwealth; he prescribed unto his followers no new and peculiar form of government; nor put he the sword into any magistrate’s hand, with commission to make use of it in forcing men to forsake their former religion, and receive his.”

One may read those words of John Locke and think it possible to improve on his doctrine of faith and works. But it is not possible to improve on Locke’s perception of the actions of Christ in terms of politics, law, or the sword. Locke got that right; he read the New Testament accurately on those points.

If there is going to be a postmillennial golden age, because Christ calls, ordains and inspires us to move forward to it, satisfied with nothing less than complete obedience to the gospel, it cannot come by a ‘peculiar form of government.’ Locke had faith that the truth would prevail, notwithstanding manifest and multiple errors of religion being presented to the contrary. As he put it, “For truth certainly would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself.”

As Locke distinguished between church and state, he distinguished between an “outward court and inward court; both of the civil and domestic governor; I mean, both of the magistrate and conscience.” Locke wanted to keep the ‘jurisdictions’ of the two courts separate, to not infringe one on the other. On the point, Locke becomes both seriously religious, and seriously individualistic.

“Every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery; whose happiness depending upon his believe and doing those things in this life, which are necessary to the obtaining of God’s favour, and are prescribed by God to that end. . . there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity. . . . the care of each man’s salvation belongs only to himself. . . . But . . . affectionate endeavors to reduce men from errors . . . are indeed the greatest duty of a Christian. Anyone may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases, towards the promoting of another man’s salvation. But all force and compulsion are to be forborn. . . . Nobody is obliged in that manner to yield obedience unto the admonitions or injunctions of another, farther than he himself is persuaded. Every man, in that, has the supreme and absolute authority of judging for himself.”

Herein lies a challenge. As Christians, pursing the Millennium, we desire and require an ideal society, a model for the nations, but one which functions without external force. The only force that can count in this society, is the force of conscience, of inward conviction.   Such a force has to be conscience which joins with and communicates with others, that persuades and accepts persuasion, that is directed by a church which is in communication with other churches. As an effective means of enforcing order or building something new, such a spiritualized sword of enforcement by conscience, if it were standing entirely alone in the hands of an individual, with no other law available and no other recourse for disagreement, would be ineffective. To work, Christian conscience exists within and communicates to a community.

God has revealed, inspired and commanded in his Word and given us his Spirit to arrive somewhere. We arrive at this structure of community conscience, hopefully by choice, but necessarily through the passage of time. We may wander in the wilderness for dreadfully long ages, but come out of the wilderness, we shall, as Luther explains infra. This conscience recognizes its obligations of organization, communication, participation, correction and subordination as needed to further common purpose and common destination. Conscience has to build and acknowledge structure – conscience that does not simply sit as an individual judge, but moves to a city. That inquiry into conscience happens already within churches; it has to happen across and between churches.

The Apostle John penned a letter to seven churches, to admonish, to instruct, to prophesy, to encourage under persecution and to communicate the promise of Jesus of a better world, appearing as Jerusalem-from-above. Locke wasn’t concerned about how groups of religious cooperate, nor was he concerned about either the promise or the progress of a better world beyond his immediate political concerns. Locke’s concerns entailed resistance to monarchy in the name of consenting self-government by the people, and an end to religious persecutions. Political society for Locke was “instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life.”

The disability of Individual autonomy in spiritual affairs, of pure judging for oneself, is easy to describe, although not easy to solve. Locke’s conception of ‘every man having the supreme and absolute authority of judging for himself,’ it isn’t going anywhere at all.

Our inability to resolve factionalism at any level, whether it appears politically or religiously, is a parallel problem. If we sit in our separate corners and growl at one another, confident of our own opinions, but without further threats of compulsion or attack, we have satisfied the minimum requirements of John Locke.  We have not satisfied our Lord Jesus’ inspired directive, to convert the world and arrive at a millennial age – nor are we even moving to get there.

We don’t want to lose John Locke or his clear insight on toleration. Our path forward is to an ideal society, led by the ‘seven churches,’ themselves led and informed by individual conscience. Churches may create, communicate through and accept voluntary structures from the larger community of churches, but not by surrendering essentials of the faith.  If we don’t believe anything, we won’t be believing the Book of Revelation either.

The City of God is characterized by sincere faith, by joy, by obedience, by mercy, by careful attention to God’s Word, and by the political tools God has provided; but not for either wielding a sword or compromise for its own sake. “Nor put he the sword into any magistrate’s hand,” said John Locke, and a review of Revelation 21 and 22 discloses that such a sword will not be found there either. We may want to play theology chess, but we need to talk, and then employ some tools to build.


Martin Luther and the Engine of God

Martin Luther described the action of God which drives us along –an engine of God propelling our boat, as it carries all boats, to carry us down a river of time to a City of Holy Peace. There have been few, if any, who have had the grasp Luther did of the overwhelming power of God, yet perfectly self-controlled and purposeful in all his acts and ordaining majesty. To borrow from a popular song of some years ago, later made into a movie, the holiness of God is a many-splendored thing.

Luther’s theological masterpiece, Bondage of the Will, written in 1525, is in the form of a reply and a literary disputation with Erasmus, a distinguished scholar of his age. Erasmus took up the position, in defense of the theology of the Catholic Church, that man could act in a meaningfully good way, with respect to God’s standards, as a result of some inherent goodness within him. Acting on this goodness, he could take some steps towards his own eternal salvation and justification in God’s eyes – either he was possessed of free will with respect to negotiating his own salvation, or at least man was capable of making meaningful steps towards his own salvation, which God would recognize and reward by granting him the full gift of eternal salvation.

Erasmus’ notion of a sinner’s path to salvation was rather like postulating a marathon runner who could see and chose to embark on a wonderful, pure and holy path, but perhaps couldn’t get all the way home – at some point, seeing how well he ran, how wisely he chose, God would intervene, rather like a referee and medical team both awarding a prize and resuscitating the runner, if he failed halfway through the race, so as to carry him to the finish line with honors.

Luther took the position that, left to his own devices, man could do nothing but sin, by which Luther meant sin that was an insuperable obstacle to salvation. Apart from God’s grace and Holy Spirit (which both men concurred was capable of reforming men once they had received it, changing them to make them good), men were left in a sinful and inescapable state. To paraphrase the argument, Luther’s marathon runner (speaking apart from the grant of God’s grace) – would not out of his own nature choose a pure, perfect and holy path to begin with. According to Luther, man could not even see such a holy path, probably lay dead in his grave or at least was desperately contemplating his last criminal acts before being led to the gallows, and in any event was indifferent to this purported race for eternal life.

In his heart, Luther’s marathon runner hated the marathon race, and if he did run on some part of the race course, only did so for purposes of being seen by others to feed his vanity, or to escape punishments so obvious that even a dog would avoid them. Luther’s marathon runner was inherently evasive and would not stay the course even if forced onto it. This marathon runner would not only stray, but would be delighted to wander from the path, probably to become intoxicated. For Luther’s picture of man (and my characterization of a ‘marathon runner by Luther’) there was no point in compliance with the rules, which were oppressive anyway. Luther’s marathon runner resented the race rules bitterly. This competitor would cheat to win if he could, or quit if he could not cheat. In Luther’s view, the acts, heart and goals that God desires and commands of man, the marathon runner, would be foreign, repulsive, impossible or inscrutable to him – unless God’s grace first changed his heart.

In the course of this Luther-Erasmus dispute, a discussion arose over how God interacted with sinful men, seeing that God was the initiating and sustaining force for all creation, whose omnipotent power could not be resisted by anyone, good or evil. In their discourse, the example of the Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by God so that God’s works could be manifest through Moses, came under discussion. See Exod. 4:21; Rom. 9:17-18. There was no doubt that the Pharaoh was an evil man. But how is it, or why is it, that God, who is good, can be said to harden his heart?

Luther wrote on the Pharaoh and his will towards evil,

It is thus God hardens Pharaoh – He presents to his impious and evil will His word and His work, which that will [the Pharaoh’s] hates; that is, by its engendered and natural corruption. And thus, while God does not change by His Spirit that will within, but goes on presenting and enforcing; and while Pharaoh, considering his own resources, his riches and his power, trusts to them from the same naturally evil inclination; it comes to pass, that being inflated and uplifted by the imagination of his own greatness on the one hand, and swollen into a proud contempt of Moses coming in all humility with the unostentatious Word of God, on the other, he becomes hardened; and then, the more and more irritated and chafed, the more Moses advances and threatens; whereas, this his evil will would not, of itself, have been moved or hardened at all. But as the omnipotent Agent moved it by that His inevitable motion, it must of necessity will one way or the other. And thus, as soon as he presented to it outwardly, that which naturally irritated and offended it, then it was, that Pharaoh could not avoid becoming hardened; even as he could not avoid the action of divine omnipotence, and the aversion or enmity of his own will.

  • [Bondage of the Will, Sect. 87, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987, tr. Cole, 1823, p. 163-164]

This passage helps explain Luther’s immediately previous passage, sect. 86 (p. 162-3), which is pertinent to our discussion of postmillennialism, the City of God, and the path to a golden, millennial age in this world we inhabit.

For when people hear it said by us, that God works in us both good and evil, and that we from mere necessity passively submit to the working of God, they seem to imagine, that a man who is good, or not evil himself, is passive while God works evil in him, not rightly considering that God is far from being inactive in all His creatures, and never suffers any of them to keep holiday. . . . God, who is truly good, carrying us along by His own action, according to the nature of His omnipotence . . .

God never suffers any of his creatures to keep holiday. We move and are moved by God’s omnipotence without pause. Rather than dwelling on the evil that Pharaoh did, Luther’s transcendent picture of God, carrying all along by his energy, yet in accordance with our natures, connects us to the Millennium, the path we travel and the destination for which we reach.

Like boats swept on a current in a river, if we belong to Christ, we cannot help but go. The River of God’s Power and God’s action compels all his creatures. It matters whether we read the signs – being dragged through a river is different than boating it. What we believe and how we act matters.  Christ says so in innumerable ways.

But the destination will appear at its appointed time; we cannot avoid the paradox of God’s sovereignty and the importance of our choices. Like the highway signs that indicated I was hitchhiking both south and north on the same highway at the same time, the paradox is unanswerable, even as we live it every day.

The action of God is irresistible, with no holiday given from our own natures or from his driving power and inevitable motion. The Holy Spirit presents to us good ends and a good destination. The answer to our question – which way? – is answered by the Holy Spirit saying,

Move! Start out. God will place the path and the destination before you.’

This is a road trip, my brothers and sisters, and the only wrong answer is to not move at all.

If we fail to move, then like the Pharaoh, we will be driven. Perhaps even a lazy faith will preserve us from the Pharaoh’s bad end, but an energetic faith will lead rather to a glorious, peaceful and loving end. God drives us, not in opposition to our will, but in consonance with it, as our wills are being changed by the Holy Spirit. Not just our wills individually, but the whole of converted, believing, repentant, God-loving and Christ-following mankind.  We are enabled by grace through faith, reflected first in churches as well as governments, reflected again in smaller groups and associations.

Permitted no holiday, we travel a road exterior and interior, spiritual and visible, a journey of the inner man and the outer world. Christ will not be satisfied with anything less than full, entire and energetic compliance with and completion of the Great Commission. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” If we don’t always mean it, God most certainly does.

Having advanced this thesis, I conclude with an argument that begins in theology, but ends in politics. If all are becoming trustworthy, there is no need to continue centralizing political power. To restate it more completely and locally, if all (or many) have received the Holy Spirit, are disciples and servants of Christ, then our political forms should move us away from centralized control – away from Washington D.C., and towards the governments of the various states. From there, the states may safely move power and authority from state capitols and legislatures, to county seats and county government, as appropriate. This is ideal – perhaps fairly characterized as unrealistically ideal. But God calls things which are not, as though they were. National politics are within Christ’s power, though they are not his end. Holiness may be ineffable and sublime, but it exerts a power which is irresistible.

In our travels we differ on many points, not only with those with whom we share no common faith, but with those who do share our faith. Where experience shows that on some issue, we are not of the same mind, then, and to that extent, the centralization of power for decision is enforceable and appropriate – then, the bearing of the sword has its full significance. We respect the law. We can salute and take an order. That is consistent with the direction God would have us go, as Romans chapter 13 confirms.

Power politics is not our first preference, it’s where we regroup when we can’t see eye to eye. Lawful conduct is our path, established by laws enacted in accordance with constitutional and democratic forms. We know how this works – we may not always like it, but the various tools and outcomes are familiar to us. The law may be established and enforced by strangers from a distance if necessary, or it may be established and enforced by us or close local associates, naturally which is to be preferred.

Knowledge is a precious thing.  Nothing is more precious than the knowledge of God and his purposes for us. Knowledge allows us to find a path and take it. Our knowledge of God should not be surrendered in the daily strife of politics and negotiation. Jesus said so in his closing High Priestly prayer, addressed to so many:

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me.

I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

John 17:25-26.


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