Coffee House Discourse #5

by Tom Wolpert on February 7, 2020

In which our Vagabond Overhears a Confession

One Saturday morning people are standing in front of the coffee house, speaking of various things, including the partisan nature of current politics, and why their particular causes have not been meeting with success. Sorrow features in these discussions, suggesting that I might offer to such people a handful of my fish and chips, purchased down the street at Foghorn. I could present them as a peace offering, a harbinger of optimism.

On second thought, my peace offering would be rejected with suspicion – disaster is the only outcome they see. If I suggest anything else might be in the offing, they would be resentful and reply to me with unpleasant adjectives. Optimism has small place with them. Hearing them, sorrowful are their prognostications, depressing are their expectations. They are like cheerless horse players with long faces and downcast eyes, looking over the morning tip sheets and deciding that every horse is going to lose. If you listen to their tales of woe for even a few minutes, hard-hearted are you indeed if you don’t break out into copious sighs.

Concerned that my cheery offering would be misconstrued and my suggestion that the world might not soon end would invite derision, after some pause, I nimbly sidestep them. They have warned me and anyone else listening that we only have twelve years to X – and X is always catastrophic. It may be a sliding twelve years, so that death and disaster are always twelve years out, but you will be deemed ignorant and stubborn, if you disagree. Put your papers in order. The end is nigh.

Oddly enough, even though X – whatever it may be – is terrible, something globally morbid, it does not stop these same people from accumulating vacation homes and rotund 401(k) retirement accounts. They bribe the athletic directors of prestigious universities and ivy league colleges to get their children into these schools, under cover of spurious athletic abilities or other financial inducements. Apparently, top-notch universities and ivy league colleges will be immunized in some way from the general maelstrom of the coming calamity. The benefits of a degree from such prestigious halls of learning would, in their eyes, be a safe and sure remedy for their children, against the irresistible rising tide of X – the coming planetary dissolution. We have been warned, with considerable indignation. The tipping point is at hand. And yet, puzzling.

In any event, I quietly, inconspicuously, step lightly and take my newspaper wrapped fish & chips into the coffee house. I am hoping this guilty act of bringing food inside, as furtively as if smuggling in contraband, will not engender ill feelings among the management. If the manager is sufficiently irritated, it may result in her stern and unsympathetic directive for my prompt departure, along the lines of ‘you can’t bring that in here.’

Appearances suggest that my surreptitious entry has been successful. At least no one has paid attention to me. I casually occupy a seat in a booth with my back to the main part of this coffee house, the Post-Apocalyptic Coffee House of Grace, to further enjoy my brought-in-from-the-outside, malt vinegar-laden codfish and chips. The aroma is hard to disguise though, so like a horse galloping along the backstretch, I make some haste to eat.


Shortly after I was seated, a group of four women entered the coffee house, and sat down quite close to me at the long, central table. I turned my head and leaned out of my booth to note their arrival. Situated as I was, once I leaned back into a normal sitting position, they could barely see me at all.

Their conversation took a direction that dissolved my flippant, mischievous mood. One of the women was carrying with her a very large shopping bag. She dropped the shopping bag onto the table with a thud, indicating some weight to its contents, although she had displayed no difficulty carrying it. This woman was about 50 years of age, short, medium brown hair, a medium build but which indicated some strength, almost handsome in her regular features, as if she resembled her father’s side of the family. She was dressed in a forest-green print blouse and dark green slacks.

Seated next to her sat a heavy-set woman, about the same age, wearing glasses of an older style, with light brown hair trimmed so the part was over to the side. Her hair was combed into some mild waves, giving her something of a late 1950’s appearance. She wore a white button-down blouse, as one might wear to work in an office setting, with black loose-fitting slacks.

Across from those two sat an alert woman, also about 50 years old, who had quick dark, darting eyes which took in the room and the people, including me, in sudden acquisitive glances as if she were doing a quick mental sum of the entire scene. She had an active face and medium length dark brown hair floating around just above her shoulders. She wore an ankle-length multi-colored peasant skirt and matching short-sleeved blouse decorated with multi-colored patches, like a jester’s motley.

Next to her sat a woman also about 50 years old, who was petite, with slender hands and fingers wearing bracelets and several rings, with visibly-long darker eyelashes which contrasted with her short, sandy-blonde hair. She wore a short sleeved pullover dark-red and dark-yellow striped blouse decorated with a slender gold necklace and medium length wine-colored skirt.

As they sat, the coffee house manager, Jen Geddes, came over to get their orders. Jen introduced herself, handed them menus and then rather characteristically asked. “I’m so glad you’re here. Welcome! We’d like you to be our friends. What are your names?”

The first woman, carrying the shopping bag, introduced herself enthusiastically. “Hi, Jen. I’m Ellen. Is it alright if we sit here? We’re all together,” which Jen affirmed with a nod was fine – “that’s what its for.”

The second woman, heavy-set with light brown hair, introduced herself as Rebecca. Her voice was calm, almost monotone, in comparison to Ellen’s. The third woman, with quick darting eyes and the multi-colored patches, introduced herself as Sarah, speaking as quickly as her eyes darted. The fourth woman, petite, with slender fingers and rings, introduced herself as Sandra. After some deliberations with the menus, the four women ordered lunch from Jen, who did not need to write down any of their orders.

When Jen departed, Ellen stood and opened her large shopping bag in a business-like way. Because she was short, Ellen had to bend over to reach in to retrieve the contents, adjusting something in the bag.

“I’ll get that,” Sandra spoke. “Thanks for lugging it around. Thank you. I don’t know what’s going on with my wrist. I have an appointment, but not for another week.”

“Well, we’re dying to see. What’s the surprise? You’ve been lugging it around all morning – or having Ellen lug it around.” Sarah said.

“You’ll see now,” Sandra answered. Ellen stepped aside. Sandra reached into the almost-suitcase sized bag, and gently tipped it over onto its side. She slid out of it a very large plain white box and pulled the bag away from the box. “Okay, now let me get the top off.” Sandra pulled the square top of the box off, set it aside, and reached down with her two arms outstretched into the box to reach the bottom. “I found it at a thrift shop!” While she was pulling out her thrift shop plunder, Jen appeared to bring some of the beverages which were ordered. A few people wandered into the coffee house, but none sat near to the four women at the main table.

Sandra pulled up and out a large brilliantly-painted doll, about fifteen inches high, round and wide, decorated as an ornate painted figure of a peasant woman. Her colors were in vivid hues of candy-apple red, azure blue, bright reflective acrylic white and sable black. There was fine scrollwork decorating the fleshy round-cheeked pink face and perfectly round eyes with jet-black eyebrows and eyelashes. “See!” Sandra said. “It’s a set of nesting Russian nesting dolls! My grandmother had these!” Sandra set the doll in the middle of the table in front of her friends.

“They’re called Matryoshka dolls. Some people call them Babushka dolls or tea dolls. They’re very valuable – this is a full set! See – this dress she’s wearing is called a sarafan. Look, she’s holding a rooster.” Sandra turned the doll on the table, to show the painted form of the golden-combed black rooster being depicted as held in the right arm of the doll. The doll was painted wearing a head scarf of dark burgundy red decorated with bright gold button-shaped round ornaments and a leaf-green blouse, covered with a white apron decorated by ornate golden scroll trim.

“My grandmother had these! She would read Bible stories to me,” Sandra explained. “There’s more inside!” Sandra opened up the doll by taking off the top, as if removing a wig, and pulled from the first doll another smaller doll, about two-thirds the size of the first. The second doll was similarly dressed as a Russian peasant woman, with a black vest, ornate scroll work, pure white apron and a traditional head scarf in bronze-gold. “One opens up into another!” Sandra opened the second doll. She showed the second doll to the group and then opened the top of the second doll to pull out a third doll while the first and second doll were being passed around the group for inspection.

“My grandmother would give a name to each one and tell me their story,” Sandra explained. “The first doll is Sarah, and she was the mother of Isaac. And my grandmother would explain how God came to visit Abraham and Sarah, and promised that Sarah would have a son in her old age, and Sarah laughed.” Sandra was clearly delighted with her memories of her grandmother. “I can remember exactly what my grandmother said. She always told the story in exactly the same way.”

“The next one is Deborah. She was a judge in Israel and led everyone in battle.” Sandra opened the Deborah doll, to get the doll inside, and continued passing the dolls around to the table, which necessitated some sitting and standing.

Sandra reached over to the next doll. “This one is Ruth. She left everything she had to go with Naomi to worship God in Israel. She said “your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.’ You just had to hear my grandmother’s voice. It was always the same little sing-song, she told it the same way every time. ‘Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” Sandra nodded her head left and right rhythmically as she recited each phrase, imitating the memory of her grandmother’s lessons. Sandra opened up the Ruth doll and inside was a smaller, nested doll in the same theme, a Russian peasant woman painted with head scarf and apron.

“The next doll is Hannah. She prayed to the Lord for a child, and the Lord gave her a son, Samuel the prophet. She dedicated him to God.” Sandra continued to pull the dolls apart, and find the smaller doll inside, passing them around the table, quite animated. “The priest thought Hannah was drunk because her lips were moving, but she was praying for a child.”

“The next one is Esther. She was very brave and risked her life to save the Jewish people from Haman. She was very beautiful. The King heard her, the Jews were saved and Haman was hung on his own gallows, fifty cubits high.” The table was quite engaged now in looking over the dolls, including a few onlookers at neighboring tables. Sandra continued to pull apart the dolls to reveal inside each the smaller doll still. “This doll is Mary,” she passed round, feeling she needed to give no explanation for Mary.

“And the last little doll is the baby Jesus.” Sandra was beaming, proud of her dolls, luxuriating in the memory of her childhood and her grandmother’s love and attention. The dolls were passed around until they had made the complete circuit of the table. As they completed the circuit, Sandra began to re-assemble them inside one another.

“Your grandmother’s not still alive, is she?” asked Sarah.

“Oh no, she passed when I was about twenty-five,” Sandra answered. “It’s been a long time now, twenty-five years.” Sandra recollected momentarily. “My grandfather passed away about 30 years ago. They’re both buried together – or side by side, I guess I should say.”

“Did they make arrangements in advance for that?” Rebecca asked.

“I think so – yes,” Sandra answered. “They’re family plots. Their parents, or at least my grandmother’s parents, are buried nearby. Our family owns plots in one area of the cemetery. I guess I do too,” Sandra said, “or at least I will, when my mother passes away.”

“So your parents will be buried there too?” Rebecca confirmed.

“Yes,” Sandra answered, “And me too, I suppose, when the time comes.”

“Me too,” Rebecca repeated. The table grew rather quiet, perhaps more so than I would have expected, simply because someone mentioned the more-or-less-far-distant prospect of death.

“Your dolls are very beautiful,” Rebecca said. The table remained quiet.

“Rebecca, do you mind if we ask,” Sarah said. “What is going on with you these days?” Sarah paused, “But you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“Oh no, I don’t mind,” Rebecca answered. “I was telling Ellen before. I go every three weeks for three months, so that’s four treatments. When I go, I’m pretty much there the whole day. Then I take a month off, and start again. That’s called a cycle. I get pretty nauseated. I lost a lot of hair. The next couple of days after a treatment are not so good. This, as you may have noticed, is a wig,” Rebecca gestured. “They give me some pills for the nausea. They also give me some pills for my afib and to slow down my pulse. Then they give me some pills on account of my immune system. So I get to take a lot of pills, morning and evening. It’s not so great.”

“Are they saying anything about the results?” Sarah asked. “How long are you going to continue?”

“Well, they’re saying to me now they expect this to last about six months. The survival rate for the kind of cancer I have is pretty good, about 70%.”

“Well, 70%.” Sarah said, making it sound not-so-bad. “Okay.”

“But because of the other complications, with my heart problems and circulation problems and afib, it’s maybe not that good,” Rebecca said. “And maybe not that good, because of how far it’s metastized.” Rebecca paused. “Its metastized a lot.”

“You don’t know that,” Ellen said.

“That’s what they call it,” Rebecca said. “Metastatic colon cancer.”

“Let’s see what God calls it,” Ellen said. “Maybe God will call it healed, or cured, or in remission.”

“Maybe you can write about me in one of your books,” Rebecca said to Sarah. “Can I be a character in one of your books?”

“They’re all historical romances,” Sarah said. “Nobody ever gets chemotherapy in one of my books. Maybe they should, but it wouldn’t be a historical romance.”

“That wouldn’t be any kind of romance, would it?” Rebecca asked.

“No, it wouldn’t. I do research. The lifestyles and social situations are important for my characters. I want it to be real. Realistic. But I never tried to bring in the state of medical care at some period of history. Except maybe for childbirth. I never thought about what the Huguenots did for medical care. Maybe I should. But that would be a lot of research.”

“I don’t think they did much of anything about medical care back then,” Rebecca said. “They probably just prayed. I think that’s all I have left now. Prayers.”

“Well, we should pray. But you can be an advocate for your own care,” Ellen said. “You can ask questions. You can advocate. They’re not going to tell you more unless you make them do it. You have to ask them, and keep asking. Whatever it is you need to know, you have to ask and keep asking, so you can understand what’s going on with your own health care. You have to be an advocate for yourself.”

“I have a good medical team,” Rebecca said. “They explain everything to me. Sometimes they explain more, more than I want to hear.” The conversation paused.

“Do you remember John, from our youth group?” Sandra asked. “I think his wife had the same kind of cancer you do.”

“He was so nice,” Ellen said. “All our youth group leaders were. But I didn’t know that. Has she passed?”

“I know they moved away so she could be closer to her family,” Sandra answered. “I lost track of them after that.”

At that point, Jen returned with the first of the food orders and laid them in front of Ellen and Rebecca and momentarily disappeared. Ellen and Rebecca waited.

“I’ll ask a blessing,” Sarah said, “then go ahead and eat. You don’t have to wait for us.” The four women bowed their heads at the table.

“Dearest Father, we thank you for this food and our time to be together again. We ask your blessing on what you have provided. We ask your grace for Rebecca, as she goes through her medical treatments. We pray you would give her medical team wisdom and insight. We pray that this food would nourish and strengthen us, and strengthen Rebecca. We pray for all our friends and family, in the life circumstances we all confront, and for your grace in everything we do. All this we ask in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Rebecca and Ellen began eating, and Jen shortly brought the remaining two plates of food. “When I feel well enough, I go to church,” Rebecca told Sarah. “You’ll be happy to hear that.”

“I’m glad for you, Rebecca,” Sandra replied. “It’s a place to find comfort and strength.”

“Pastor Jim came and visited me a couple times when I was in the hospital,” Rebecca said. “He was very nice. Very concerned about me.”

“I like him,” Sarah answered. “His faith is very real.”

“We talked about the situation we had before,” Rebecca went on. “Pastor and I. I think it was a misunderstanding.”

“I’m sure it was,” Sarah replied. “I know he’s a good man. He would never intentionally slight or ignore anyone.”

“Of course, at the time I wasn’t going, we didn’t know I had cancer,” Rebecca said.

“It was going on for a while, wasn’t it?” Sandra asked. “A pretty long time, is that right?”

“Probably years,” Rebecca answered. “They can’t say for sure.” Rebecca paused. “Sometime, you have to be patient.” She directed this statement to Sarah. There was another pause at the table.

“Are you saying, I wasn’t being patient with you?” Sarah asked.

“All I’m saying is that, sometimes you have to be patient. You can’t always tell what’s going on with a person. Sometimes they can’t tell themselves, what’s going on with them. Sometimes they don’t know. You can’t know, what it’s like to be somebody else,” Rebecca concluded.

“We’ve known each other for a long time,” Sarah answered. “We’ve been friends for thirty-five years. I just felt if we couldn’t talk, if I couldn’t talk to you, who could?”

“The first time you said I ought to go to church, that was a talk between friends.” Rebecca paused for effect. “The second time you said it, it was more like a lecture. The third time you said it, it was more like an order.”

“I’m sorry if it came across that way,” Sarah apologized. “That wasn’t my intention.”

“Apology accepted,” Rebecca said. “Apology accepted, but you don’t know what it is, to feel the way someone else feels.”

“I apologize if that’s the way I made you feel,” Sarah said. “As if you were being ordered to go to church. I wasn’t trying to lecture you and I wasn’t trying to order you. But I was concerned about you,” Sarah concluded, then retreated into her own thoughts, furrowing her brow.

“Oh, all right,” Rebecca said. “I know you meant well. What are you going to do with the dolls?” Rebecca turned and asked Sandra.

Before Sandra could answer, Sarah burst out. “Rebecca, maybe there’s something more I need to say. I feel like God wants me to say something. Maybe I need to confess an attitude. An attitude toward you, and an attitude toward people.”

“What’s bringing this on?” Rebecca asked.

“Sarah, we all know you pretty well,” Ellen interrupted. “You said you were sorry, and Rebecca accepted your apology. I don’t think it has to go further.”

“Please hear me out. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things,” Sarah continued. “I’ve been thinking about you,” Sarah said to Rebecca, who nodded slightly in response. “I’ve been thinking about how we got disconnected. I guess it gets connected with my son, too. I didn’t understand. Why couldn’t you be different? Why can’t my son be different?” This sudden change of topic caught the other three women by surprise, but Sarah was warming up to her topic.

“I keep asking that question in my own head. I don’t understand. It’s as if I’m exasperated with everybody. I’m irritated with everything. Irritated by my son, irritated by my husband, irritated by my friends. I’m irritated if somebody doesn’t go to church. I was irritated and impatient with you. I’m irritated when I get to church. I’m impatient with everybody there. I’m impatient with my son. I’m impatient and irritated because nothing seems to change. I’m irritated by the people I meet at work. I’m irritated by what I see on the news. Maybe I’m just dealing with the fact, that I’m irritated and impatient with everything and everybody and especially myself.” Sarah paused to draw a breath. “And that’s a problem I have, not just with you Rebecca, but with everybody. I guess I’m glad I can’t see God when I pray, or I’d be irritated with him, too. It’s just something I have to deal with. It’s my shortcoming.” Sarah stopped to draw breath.

Rebecca responded calmly. “Well, maybe you thought I was making excuses. Maybe I was. And that’s why you were irritated when I stopped going to church. You were irritated with me,” suggested Rebecca. “Maybe not so concerned for my soul. But maybe for a good reason. You were irritated because you thought I was making excuses. You thought I was feeling sorry for myself for no reason. I was feeling sorry for myself, but I didn’t know the reason. Now I do. Now we all do.”

“That’s about it,” admitted Sarah. “I guess I make a lot of excuses. I get to hear a lot of excuses.”

“Is this about your son?” asked Sandra. “Because you hear a lot of excuses from him?”

“Yes, I guess that’s true,” Sarah answered. “it’s been going on for so long.”

“But you can’t lecture him,” suggested Ellen. “You want to give him a big, long lecture. Tell him to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Get his life together. Turn things around. Stop feeling sorry for himself. But you can’t say that to him, so you say it to Rebecca.”

“I have said it to him, for years,” Sarah sighed. “But it doesn’t help. There are things going on inside him. It’s not something he can control.”

“And it turns out, that Rebecca has something serious,” Sandra said. “And that’s something she can’t control.”

“Cancer is the word, Sandra,” Rebecca corrected.

“Sarah, you’d like to scream at your son,” Ellen continued. “But you can’t. You’d like to scream at his illness, but you can’t. And you wanted to scream at Rebecca. But you couldn’t. And so you’re bearing it all inside, but you can’t. So it comes out in irritation. You’re exasperated with everybody. You’re impatient all the time,” Ellen said. “But not because you’re a bad person. Because after years and years, it piles up.”

“I guess I’m getting psychoanalyzed here,” Sarah smiled. “Do I owe anything for the counseling session?”

“All free, Sarah,” Ellen answered. “Because we’re all in the same boat.”

“Do I get a turn with the counselor?” Rebecca asked. “I have a series of chemo treatments scheduled for next week, for three more weeks. And they won’t say a word to me about what they expect, except cheerful non-statements. And it’s so obvious they’re being evasive about what they really expect, it’s embarrassing. Evasive, and tactful. And sensitive. But not frank.”

“We know,” Ellen said. “We know. But we don’t know what more we can say to you. Does it make it better, if we spend an hour talking about it?”

“That’s why we did this outing,” Sandra asked, “wasn’t it? To do something together, the way we did in youth group? To have fun, four girls out together, shopping, talking, laughing. You know, joking, not moping.”

“It can’t be the same,” Rebecca said. “We all know that. And I know you’re trying. I’m trying too,” Rebecca concluded sadly, with resignation. The table was again silent.

At that point there was movement in the coffee house. Two more women arrived in the vicinity of the long central table. These women had already ordered at the register and were bringing over their café mochas or lattes or whatever was in their coffee cups, along with their blueberry or bran muffins. They were making their way to a booth near the long table were the four friends were sitting, on the other side from me. One of the women, of medium height, was dressed in comfortable contemporary clothes, casually and fashionably attired, with modestly applied but skilled makeup and small silvery earrings with tiny inlaid semi-precious gemstones, probably in her early or mid-forties. The other woman, somewhat taller, also probably in her late 30’s or early forties, was wearing a long print dress, down to her ankles, a long white apron, with a plain, white mesh head covering and her hair somewhat piled up into a bun with hair clips to make a cushion for her head covering. She had on no jewelry, no earrings, and wore no makeup. I recognized her manner of dress, her uniform, as that of a conservative Mennonite.

“Wait!” Sarah exclaimed in the general direction of the fashionably attired woman as they passed. “I know you! You’re the writer – the author. You’re Winnie Archer. I’ve been on your website a hundred times!” Sarah, who tended toward a certain animated manner anyway, was genuinely as excited and breathless as any teenage fan meeting her rock star idol backstage. “I’ve read all your books! Every one.”

Sarah’s excitement attracted the attention of Jen, the manager. She came over to see what was going on, standing there with her hands buried in a dish towel, which she would ultimately stuff into one of the pockets of her apron.

“Look,” Sarah, “We have a Christian celebrity! This is Winnie Archer!” Sarah turned her head to explain to her friends, to Jen, to me, to anyone else who might be listening, as if we were all the fortunate audience. “She’s an author who’s been on the New York Times bestseller list. And a college professor. She speaks all over the country.” There wasn’t anything for Winnie Archer and her plainly-dressed Mennonite companion to do, but graciously stand and allow Sarah to make her emcee-like general introduction.

Winnie, exhibiting some embarrassment but also the poorly-disguised pleasure of being recognized, introduced the woman standing next to her. “Thank you,” Winnie said, “Thank you. You haven’t told me your name yet, or your friends. But this is my sister, Heidi. Heidi Archer Foxe. She’s visiting us from her home near Winnipeg, Canada. In Manitoba. That’s in the middle, more or less above Minnesota and North Dakota.”

The group paused for mutual introductions. I discreetly leaned back into my booth and reviewed my emails and cell phone messages.

“Welcome to our coffee house,” Jen Geddes smiled at Winnie, extending her hand. “If there’s anything we can get you, please let me know. And if you feel like reading out loud from one of your books, please go ahead. We encourage spontaneous performances!” Jen laughed happily and Winnie joined in.

“I never heard of a coffee house with a name like this one. What is it – the Post-Apocalyptic Coffee House of Grace – how did you arrive at that?” Winnie asked. “It’s a little bit long to say over the phone, isn’t it?”

“It’s a bit of a story,” Jen answered. “But we shorten it when we answer the phone. The owner has a sincere faith. He also has a sense of historical – something – not humor – I don’t know what the word is – he sees things a little bit differently, I guess.” Jen paused. “I asked him about the name when I applied for the job here as manager. He told me we had enough apocalypses for a while. He wasn’t going to order anymore. It was hard to tell whether he was joking or not.”

“You’ve had cancer too?” Sarah interjected. “That was in one of your books. But yours is in remission. Is that right?”

Winnie looked around at the table, almost immediately grasping the nature of the question. “Yes,” I was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer a few years ago, when I was 35. I’m on immunotherapy now. Mine is chronic, not curable.”

“I have cancer,” said Rebecca plainly. “Mine is not in remission. And probably chronic, but not curable. I’m in a countdown.”

Winnie was momentarily taken aback, but just momentarily. Rebecca nodded her head slightly to one side and shrugged as if to say – ‘that’s the way it is.’

“Alright,” Winnie began in response. “Well, not alright. Maybe there’s some things I can say to you, some things we can talk about. But here’s what I won’t say. I won’t say, ‘God needs an angel.’ I won’t say, ‘God is closing a door, but opening a window.’ I won’t say ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ I won’t say ‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ I won’t say, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ A woman told my husband that, once. He answered back, ‘And what is the reason, that my 35-hear old wife has stage four cancer?’ He wasn’t expecting an answer, and he didn’t get one.”

Winnie paused. “I will say, ‘you are dearly loved.’ I don’t know you, but I see you’re here with friends. I know you are loved. I’m glad you’re here with your good friends. I know they love you. I can see it on their faces.”

“Thank you,” Rebecca said. “It’s easier hearing it from you.”

“I have more,” Winnie said. “I can be quite a loudmouth about terrible diseases. Don’t let suffering be your yardstick for everything. Watch reality tv, if it makes you laugh. Don’t roll your eyes, when a contestant has a bad hair day, and calls it a tragedy. Don’t let the little pleasures of life run away.” Winnie looked at the dolls on the table. “If you like Russian dolls, collect them until you can’t stuff anymore into your bedroom.”

Winnie was animated now. “If you will believe me, there is even a blessing in chemo. And a blessing in radiation, and losing your hair. There is a kind of strange joy in losing your appetite, and throwing up, and having ulcers in your mouth. Even in having your skin scorched from drugs, and waiting in terror for some professional, poker-faced physician’s assistant to tell you the results of your last scan. If they’re giving you bad news, their eyes dart away for just a moment. Watch the eyes, that’s how you can tell whether they’re giving you a straight story.

“I can’t explain that blessing. But don’t lose it. Even if you climb the mountain of health care procedures, all designed to alleviate your cancer, and you’re waiting to hear your tumors have shrunk. And there’s nothing up there but a pile of rocks on top of the mountain. And bad news from somebody who is very nice and very compassionate but is going to go home that day after telling you your tumors have grown, not shrunk – and she’s going to feed her golden retriever and drink Merlot with her feet on the coffee table and watch America’s Got Talent – but still, don’t lose it. Don’t lose the blessing.

“It’s still life. God still made it. Don’t lose their love, your friends who are here with you. Don’t lose their blessing. They’d probably take your cancer for you, if they could. Don’t make cancer that strong. So strong it drowns out everything else. It isn’t that strong.” Winnie’s speech was moving, and it moved her audience.

“We’re trapped in our bodies. Sometimes I feel like my own body is a dirty rotten traitor, and I’d like to take it out and beat it up. My no-good disobedient body obliterated the life I was leading, obliterated all my plans, that I had made so carefully before I was diagnosed, that I had filed in my head like index cards, when that scoundrel of a body of mine made a home for cancer. But if I think that way too long, it makes the cancer too strong. It’s not stronger than the blessing. Your friends are here for that.”

“We all want to say the right things to Rebecca. But we’re not as good at it as you are. I don’t want to say the wrong things anymore,” Sarah offered. “I did that already.”

“What should we do?” asked Sandra. “We don’t know what to do for Rebecca. Nobody explains that. What to do with your best friend for thirty-five years, when she has terminal cancer? When do they teach you that in school? I’ve probably said the wrong thing too.”

“That’s why you’re here today, isn’t it?” Winnie replied. “That’s the right thing. A blueberry muffin is the right thing. A cappuccino is the right thing. Spaghetti is right – with garlic French bread all buttery and warm. Even if she hasn’t much appetite. Rebecca isn’t cooking much for herself anymore, I would expect.” Winnie looked over to Rebecca, who acknowledged the fact. “Bring her a great meal anyway. Email her, text her dumb emojis, tell that you’re going to bring her cookies every day for a week. Bring her something else, too, something silly and indulgent. Chocolates from Ghirardelli square, orchids, the complete collection of Shirley Temple movies.”

“Russian dolls,” said Sandra.

‘Yes, yes,” Winnie acknowledged. “Russian dolls. And Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy stuffed dolls. Anything. Tell her that she’s a beautiful person. You know she’s a beautiful person.”

Sandra complied and said to Rebecca, “Rebecca, you are a beautiful person,” which affirmation was joined by Sarah and Ellen.

“Just tell her that you’re on her team. You’re in her corner. You got the news already, and we heard that you’re making progress.”

“Even if it’s not true?” Rebecca asked.

Winnie didn’t respond to Rebecca’s question. “Don’t make her repeat the whole story of the latest treatment. Don’t drag her through all the details of the latest medical procedure, whatever it is. Find out from somebody, but don’t make Rebecca repeat it over and over.”

“I think we’ve been pretty good about that, today,” Sandra said.

“Give her hugs,” Winnie suggested.

“They’ve already done that today,” Rebecca said. “I got some hugs. I’ll probably get some more.”

“Let her talk. About the side effects, if she wants. About the ugliness of the equipment and the endless beeping alarms and the tubes and the icky hospital bed and never getting the temperature right and always being interrupted for another blood draw just when you’re going to sleep. And the wraps around your calves. And the needles and the treatment chairs and the IV chemicals and the fourth round of blood draws and the food on cafeteria trays in little Tupperware bowls and the little potty bowl you try to stick under your butt,” Winnie said. “And the endless re-runs of I Love Lucy on the hospital TV – although if they give you enough painkillers, they’re not too bad. And friends coming in who always look so serious. And more needles.

“Let Rebecca talk. Even if she’s talking in a circle. Because too much of what she sees is the same sad faces of other patients sitting in the same scrubbed, antiseptic rooms waiting for their same brave turn to do the same sad thing with the same busy technicians. Because it’s really the same sad disease we all have. And sometimes people need to ventilate the sadness.”

“I think we’re pretty good there,” Sarah suggested. “If she wants to tell us, we listen.”

“Yes, yes they are,” Rebecca confirmed. “I usually don’t want to go over it all again. But when I do, they listen.”

“Just sit with her. Don’t say anything.” Winnie said. “There’s aren’t good words for pain. There aren’t good words for tragedy. I heard one man make this suggestion to his friend. The two of them were waiting for someone off in some room somewhere, waiting for their friend to come back from some treatment, when it was going to be my turn next, so I could hear them talking. ‘Just show up, and shut up.’ That’s what he said to explain to his friend how to act, whenever the sick friend came back. ‘Just show up, and shut up.’”

“Let me ask you a question, if I might,” Winnie ventured. “Are you members of churches that teach the prosperity gospel?”

The women looked at each other, quickly, indicating their unanimity.

“No,” answered Sarah. “We don’t all go to the same church. Rebecca and I do. But we all go to evangelical churches. Pretty much plain vanilla, conservative evangelical churches. You know, Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Raised on the third day for our justification. The plain vanilla gospel. The plain Word. No prosperity gospel.”

“I’ve heard from some of the people who go to those churches,” Rebecca said. “Not many. It’s not our circle. It’s not my family ‘s circle. But people find out what you’re going through. You hear from people you never heard from before. They send emails, somehow. I don’t even know how they get my email. They post on my facebook page.”

Rebecca paused. “You can tell the people from a prosperity church. They always have an explanation and a plan. I have cancer because of something spiritual that I haven’t done. Or I have cancer because of some spiritual thing I have done that I should stop doing. And if I do the right spiritual thing, or say the right prayer, or stop doing the wrong spiritual thing, or stop saying the wrong prayer, then the balance will tip to my favor. It’s controllable. God will reward me with a healing.

“The way they see it, God has to, because it’s controllable and you just have to do the right thing. Then the right reality comes out, the right healing, like you put a dollar in a vending machine, and you always get the bag of sunflower seeds, the chocolate bar. They’re always very definite about that. Kind of like the people who tell you about the right diet to be on, to cure cancer. It’s not just that God could reward me with a healing. He has too. It’s like a contract or something. Or a score. They want me to add the positives. Subtract the negatives. Get the answer – it’s a healing. Or maybe it’s like a trial. Being super-certain. If you’re going to convince God and get acquitted from disease, you have to be super-certain. No doubts are allowed.”

“But you’re not on trial,” Winnie said.

“Yes, she is,” replied Ellen, forcefully injecting herself into the dialogue. “It is a trial. God decided that.”

“Well, maybe in some ultimate sense,” acknowledged Winnie. “But not in the sense that they mean.”

“They mean, if you do x or y or say z or send in money to so-and-so, you’ll be healed and you’ll win your healing in your trial.” Rebecca explained.

“I understand,” said Ellen. “But I’ve known Rebecca since we were 15 years old. if there was ever a trial, this is a trial. You can’t make God do healings. But you can’t stop God from putting trials on our way. The Bible says so. Troubles in this world are not a choice. Hardships are trials. That’s not an option. Jesus said so. And this is her trial. You can’t be so mad at the prosperity gospel people you turn everything upside down. God doesn’t owe man an explanation. God does put people through trials. Job was on trial. I love Rebecca, and what’s she’s going through is a trial.”

“Well, we’re here to help Rebecca with her trial.” Sandra said, turning to Rebecca. “We’re in your corner. On your team and on your side.”

Winnie wasn’t quite ready to surrender her point. “I think we’re just trying to deal with people who come up to you, with a big smile on their faces, to explain to you, because they’re not suffering from anything at all, that ‘everything happens for a reason,’” Winnie suggested. “I think that’s important for Rebecca – for everyone involved. Illness this serious involves many people. It’s frustrating to hear a cliché like that. When I hear that I want to ask – what is the reason? If you know, please tell me – that’s what I want to say.’

“Well, everyone is trying to be sympathetic, trying to be helpful and encouraging,” Sarah said. “I don’t know what I would say, either.”

“Everything happens for a reason – it can be a bit of a lie,” Winnie said. “A lie I love – but a lie.”

“But everything does – happen for a reason,” Ellen interjected again , also rather unwilling to surrender her point. “Even if it’s not what we want to hear. ‘That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering, conformed to his death, if by any means, I might attain to the resurrection of the dead.’” Ellen paused. “Those are reasons. That we may know him. There’s a reason. It’s just a not a reason anyone wants to hear, if they’re suffering.

“I suffer with Rebecca. We all do. But you can’t say there’s not a reason. God says there’s a reason. That I may know him. And the fellowship of his suffering. And being made conformable to his death. And the power of his resurrection. Those are solid reasons. Maybe they’re sad reasons. Maybe they’re unbearable reasons, that none of us can fully hear. But that’s the faith – I know God’s grace is sufficient for every day. Even hard days. That is a reason – but it’s God’s reason, not man’s. Everything doesn’t have to be turned into something we understand. Something we agree with.” Ellen paused, just as animated as Winnie had been. “Who are you, O man, to reply to God?” Ellen asked rhetorically.

Winnie did not appear convinced. “There are people who are suffering very deeply. People who have lost their children to cancer. Those are hard things to say to those parents, when someone explains to them that the time has come to take their child off life-support. Reasons, even if you have them right out of the Bible, aren’t going to help with overwhelming grief.”

“I know. Maybe God is more than our grief counselor,” Ellen answered. “If it’s for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men, most miserable.”

“But Ellen,” Sarah said. “Winnie’s books have made a lot of difference to a lot of people. Even if there are reasons – right out of the Bible reasons – sometimes you can get to the reasons too quickly. Helping people bear with pain is a good thing. Having all the right answers has to be done for all the right reasons.”

“Isn’t suffering something that God redeems?” asked Heidi, the first time she spoke.

“I need to be redeemed,” Rebecca responded. “Wasn’t that a movie? With Shirley Temple? She needed to be redeemed. Little Miss Marker, that was the movie.”

“You will be redeemed. All our suffering will be redeemed,” Heidi said, choosing words carefully.

“I remember it. She was left as a marker for a gambling debt. Like an IOU. The movie was all about gamblers. The gambler was going to come back and redeem Shirley Temple,” Rebecca reminisced. “And pay off his debt. That’s what I feel like. Like I’ve been left behind. Life is going on, right past me, but I’m an IOU, somebody’s marker, for something or someone who is going to come later, maybe. I feel like a marker for a bad debt.”

“It’s not that way,” Winnie said. “And wasn’t little Miss Marker redeemed?”

“Isn’t that the way the doctors talk, though?” Rebecca asked rhetorically. “Like gamblers? This form of chemo treatment has a 20% chance of working. Last year I had a 70% chance of surviving two years. My odds are down now. Now maybe I have a 30% chance of surviving for one year. Complications. My doctors will tell me the treatments, and they like to repeat the percentages. They’re scientists – they like statistics – how much time, how many months, the treatment percentages are good for. It’s like betting on a horse race. Will stronger chemotherapy win? Is the survival rate with the stronger chemo 60%, for two years? Will radiation therapy come in ahead? 30% on that. Could I get a year out of immunotherapy? 20% chance of that. Will palliative care in hospice give me three months? 80% chance on that one. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. The cancer treatments are on the track now. They’re at the gate. Rebecca is at cancer gate. Guys and dolls – what are the odds?”

“Rebecca – ” Ellen said.

“They always look so serious, so scientific, when they tell you about the percentages for the various treatment therapies. I’d get a bigger smile out of a bookie.”

“God doesn’t play dice with us,” Ellen said, mixing the metaphor. “Maybe we don’t understand. But God has a plan for everything. We’re not just horses on a track.”

“Yes, there are goodbyes, aren’t there?” Heidi observed, speaking softly but clearly. “We go from generation to generation, life and death, over and over. We give birth. We see our children grow. If God wills, we see our grandchildren grow. We say goodbye to them on our deathbeds. I said goodbye to our grandmother, on her deathbed on a farm on the Canadian prairie. Out her window, the prairie went on and on. We were small next to it. Everything we did was small next to it. Those of us who could be there, at her deathbed, were. She said goodbye to us. We said goodbye to her.”

“I’m struggling with goodbye right now. Struggling with my goodbyes,” Rebecca answered, and tears formed in her eyes.

“She died right at sunset,” Heidi said to herself, then turned to Rebecca. “We have a sure hope in heaven’s grace,” Heidi answered. “But the path is not always smooth.”

“Did your grandmother make a lot of visits to doctors?” Rebecca asked. “Or did she just accept what was happening, go home, and wait for the end?”

“I think she made one or two visits to the doctors,” Heidi acknowledged. “But mostly, the latter, what you said. She went home. Spent time in her kitchen. Swept her porch. Tended to the animals. Went to my grandfather’s grave site. Made sure her gravesite was ready and undisturbed, next to his. Sat down in her kitchen when couldn’t stand anymore. And lay down in her bedroom, when she couldn’t sit anymore. Quietly.”

“Was she all alone?” Rebecca asked.

“I did not live far away,” Heidi answered. “I visited her every day. When she had to retire to her bedroom, all our family spent time with her. Winnie flew back from the states. She wasn’t alone near the end.”

“What denomination are you?” Rebecca asked.

“We’re Mennonites,” Heidi answered, to which Winnie nodded her assent.

“Is that different than the Amish?” Rebecca asked.

“We’re not the same as the Amish,” Heidi answered. “Although, sometimes, I guess, it’s not easy for outsiders to tell. We drive cars, we use electricity, we have cell phones and take selfies. Some of us wear traditional clothes.”

“And some of us do not,” Winnie added. “There’s a broad range of Mennonite dress and conduct and belief about separation from the outside world. It isn’t the same religious tradition as the Amish. But we’re all what are called Anabaptists. Both groups are pacifists, too.”

“I guess I don’t exactly agree with that,” Sarah observed. “That seems like an invitation to evil.”

“It’s a big discussion,” Winnie acknowledged. “Many people have opinions about that.”

“I have a son-in-law who’s a Navy jet pilot,” Ellen said. “He was stationed out on an aircraft carrier for about ten months at a time. My youngest daughter lived with us for about five months, when he was out on deployment. He was on the Abraham Lincoln. They went all over the Middle East – it was on the news. His permanent base is on Whitby Island, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. It’s above Seattle. Not that far from Vancouver – that’s Canada, right?” Ellen’s question suggesting that the geography of the Pacific Northwest was a bit of a mystery to her.

“We appreciate the sacrifices all servicemen make,” Winnie said. “It’s just something we as Mennonites don’t do. We serve the cause of peace in other ways. And yes, Vancouver is in Canada, on Canada’s west coast.”

“My daughter said his job is to go in first, and take out the other’s side’s radar,” Ellen said. “When they were sailing around the Middle East, and it was in the news all the time – I was praying for peace, too.”

“Yes,” Winnie agreed. “We may all do that.”

“Our grandfather was a conscientious objector in World War II,” Heidi observed. “he had to leave his home.”

“Like that movie I saw?” Rebecca asked. “About a battle in the Pacific. Hacksaw Ridge. This pacifist was a medic. Maybe he was a Mennonite – I’m not sure. And he went up on this ridge, and started carrying down the wounded. Right in front of the enemy soldiers. One after another. All night long. ‘Go get another,” he heard God say. He got a medal of honor.”

“I think that was Desmond Doss,” Winnie answered. “I think he was a 7th day Adventist. They’re a little different too. It’s hard to tell your little Anabaptist groups apart, without a score card.”

“But our grandfather did serve in World War II,” Heidi continued, “as a conscientious objector. They sent him first to do medical services. He served in a mental hospital for a little while. He told us how badly they treated the patients, before the conscientious objectors came. Then they showed everyone how to treat the patients better. Then he went to a work camp in one of the national parks. They called it Sixteen-Mile camp. They were kind of prisoners there – they weren’t really free to leave. He was there for a couple of years. He worked on a sawmill, and built bridges and did things like that. He got paid fifty cents a day. He said they nearly froze in the winter. A lot of Mennonites were German speaking, like my grandfather. They weren’t allowed to speak German in the camp. They weren’t allowed to go home until every Canadian soldier was allowed to go home. They were last out after the war ended.”

“What did your grandmother do, while your grandfather was away? Were they married them?” Rebecca asked.

“They got married when they were teenagers, so I know they were married. She waited for him, I guess,” Heidi answered. “She was a traditional Mennonite woman.” As Heidi said this, one could not help but notice her dress. Evidently Heidi’s grandmother was not the only traditional Mennonite woman in her line.

“What does that mean to you?” Sarah asked. “Being a traditional Mennonite woman?”

“To be an imitator of Christ,” Heidi said after a pause. “To keep the traditions handed down to us. To honor Christ, who is the head of every man. To cover our heads with cloth, because the head of a married woman is her husband. And because the head of Christ is God,” Heidi paused to gather her thoughts. “A traditional Mennonite woman submits to her teachers, to her parents, to her husband.” Heidi added. She waited before going on, but these were words that she had mentally rehearsed. “To take no step to retaliate, ever. To suffer and turn the other cheek, no matter what the offense. No matter who the person is.”

She paused again. “And figuring out how every other Mennonite I meet is related to me somehow.” Heidi smiled, occasioning a smile from Winnie also. “We never take oaths. We wash each other’s feet. Not being covetous. Separate from the world. That was my grandmother’s faith. For the most part, it still is my mother’s faith. It’s my faith now, too. It’s my tradition now. If my daughters will have it from me, I will hand it to them.”

“But not all Mennonite women interpret our tradition the same way,” Winnie observed. “You can see that Heidi and I dress differently. We’re all Mennonites. But each Mennonite woman is a Mennonite in her own way. Faith is something that comes from the inside. It’s never imposed from outside. Separate from the world means different things, to different people.”

“You’ve adopted a more conservative view than she did?” Sarah asked Heidi, indicating Winnie, their differences in dress making the distinction obvious. “No one made you, Heidi? You decided that for yourself?”

“Yes,” Heidi answered. “For myself.”

“Do you feel like you’re missing things, sometime?” Sarah asked. “That you’re being limited from what you could be?”

“And what could I be?” Heidi asked with a smile.

“Did you go to college?” Sarah asked. “Or work outside the home?

“No. Like my grandmother, I married when I was a teenager. I’ve never had a job that had a paycheck to go with it. I gave birth to our oldest son nine months after my wedding day. We have five children now. The youngest is 15. All I have ever done is to make a home for my family. The only places I have ever lived is my parent’s house in Canada – and then I moved to another home in Canada when I wed, that belonged to my husband’s family, nearby. This trip to visit Winnie is a big event for me. It’s the furthest I’ve ever been from home. It’s the first time I ever left Manitoba. It’s only because our youngest can fend for himself now, that I would even think about it.”

“But not every girl in your family made the choices you did?” Sandra asked.

‘No, they didn’t,” Heidi answered.

“You could have left Canada? It’s cold there, isn’t it?” Sandra asked. “I don’t do well with the cold. I’d have to be the girl who left.”

“When the wind blows down the prairie, yes, it is very cold in Manitoba, on the prairie. The winter is long. Tolerating it is what makes you a Canadian,” injected Winnie.

“Are you happy with your choices?” Sarah asked Heidi. “You could have been less traditional. You could have traveled, gone to college, started a career. Maybe even taken flying lessons, flown a plane. I know your sister writes books and gives lectures all over the country. She probably doesn’t like the term, but she’s a Christian celebrity. You could have a web site to tell what it’s like to be a Mennonite woman.”

“I suppose I could have done all those things,” Heidi answered, looking straight at Sarah, with direct, simple eye contact. “And more. The world was open to me, and all its possibilities. I could have traveled. I could have gone to a great university. Immersed myself in books and learning. I could have followed in my sister’s footsteps. Perhaps even written books, so everyone would see how wise I was,” Heidi paused.

“In the whole world, there would have been hardly a limitation, none at all, really, except one – to be like my grandmother.” She paused. “Everything would be open to me. Nothing would be barred, except that one choice – to wear a covering cloth on my head, to be submissive to my husband, to find my place in a long line of Mennonite women.” Heidi paused again. “Something not very popular these days, relying on a simple Mennonite faith. To place my family before everything else. To take my grandmother’s place, and my grandmother’s values, and make her choices my choices, living on a vast Canadian prairie.” Heidi stopped to gather her thoughts again. “I could have gained a great deal, with but one small sacrifice.” Heidi paused again. “I just would not be a traditional Mennonite woman, like my grandmother, or her mother before her.”

“You don’t think you could do both, blend both worlds?” Sarah asked.

“I couldn’t. It’s not a sophisticated life, the life my grandmother lived,” Heidi answered. “It was much like her mother’s life before her, or her mother’s, before her. My grandmother didn’t know what the phrase ‘lifestyle choice’ meant. She did not stop to think about such things. She got up before five every morning, to cook breakfast for my grandfather. He was at work by 5:30. That’s when I get up now. My husband starts work at 5:30, too. I’m sure he was up at 5:30 this morning, even though I wasn’t there to make his breakfast. And my grandmother baked on the weekends. So do I. It’s very plain. I guess you could say I don’t know any better. Or, I choose not to.”

“And what did you think, or how did you feel, when you saw the choices your sister was making? Sarah asked. “Because she was making the exact opposite choices, wasn’t she? She was becoming Winnie Archer, celebrated, quoted, Christian author, Christian speaker.”

Heidi paused, and looked at Winnie, but Winnie had decided to not interrupt her sister. Heidi’s pause lasted. It was a pause that became a silence. Then it became a conspicuous silence. Everyone now was looking at Heidi and waiting.

Heidi set her face in an expression that was somewhere between stern and sad, wistful and ashamed. Her eyes were downcast. “I was conflicted. I was making one set of choices. And I was so jealous of what Winnie was doing, and her choices. I was full of envy,” Heidi finally answered. “I couldn’t put the pieces together. It started when I was a teenager. No, it started even before that. Winnie was so bright. Our parents were so proud of her, when we were children. My father was so proud of her grades and her awards. Everyone knew how smart she was, how far she was going to go.”

“No amount of prayer would take my envy away. I was jealous of Winnie’s grades, her scholarships, her college degrees. Her university positions. Later, I was jealous of her books, her lectures, her columns for the New York Times. I was full of envy, raging in my heart, in my mind, underneath a modest Mennonite head covering.” As Heidi spoke, Winnie’s jaw was literally dropping.

“It was my envy, but it was straight from hell. I cried about it. As I grew older, I prayed about it. I read scripture over it. It went on for years. No one knew. When her book was on the bestseller list, I cried from envy. My children found me crying in the kitchen, looking out the window. They asked me why, and I made up a lie. It was a bitter root inside. Winnie was a college professor. I was nothing, in the middle of nowhere. Winnie had a website. I read every word on her website, and hated the way it made me feel. Winnie had podcasts – she interviewed people, Christians. I listened to every one of her podcasts. Inside me was nothing Christian, nothing Mennonite. It was envy and jealousy and rage. And it was my conflict. I was between two worlds. This thing was between two sisters, except that only one of them knew about it. I couldn’t look to my grandmother for a model, on how to deal with it.”

As Heidi said these words, Winnie looked at her in open shock. There was another silence, in which no one seemed prepared to say anything. “I felt lost in my own emotions, raging away, like a river in a violent storm. Some piece of me was driven and drifting, tumbling among the lost and the damned,” Heidi concluded and then regained her habit of looking straight ahead to the person she addressed and making eye contact. She did not turn her head toward Winnie at all.

Winnie had turned pale, as if she might faint. She stared unblinkingly at Heidi, two sisters, no more than three feet apart in a coffee house, while the four women who were friends in their youth group who sat together at the long table for an outing because one of them had cancer, the coffee house manager and I, all watched.

“I never knew! Never! Never! You could have done those things,” Winnie blurted finally. “All those things. And more. You can now!”

“You don’t understand,” Heidi said, and now she turned directly to face her sister. “It’s not that I wanted to do those things. It’s that I hated you for doing them. I envied you in a way you can’t understand. It’s serious sin, deep sin. It didn’t go away with a little five-minute prayer. It was jealousy, and bitterness, and resentment, and envy. And rivalry. Fierce rivalry, you never even imagined. It’s not that I wanted your life. I was making my decisions. It’s that I hated all the attention everyone was paying to you. Everybody was always doting on you. Every award, every achievement, every newspaper article about you. When you first told mom and dad you had cancer, they left home to be your support, month after month, for year after year, I guess. They were so preoccupied, so upset and besides themselves – over you. They hardly bothered to say goodbye to me. I hated you for being so brave, so cutsey-pie about your cancer. I hated your engaging little pep talks for the world, while you were facing death. It’s my sin. It long sickened my soul.”

At this point, Winnie began to cry. Not loudly, but tears were visible on her cheeks. She didn’t seem to be able to muster or collect her thoughts. Finally, she said, “But you can do all that. You can. You can. You can. Why don’t you? You can come with me. Your family will be fine. We can travel together.” Winnie offered, and it was evident that she was somewhat dissatisfied with her own words – she wanted to say something more or something different to her sister, but was just too shocked and dismayed to compose her sentences and her emotions.

Heidi responded in her direct, calm, simple manner. “You are a different person on the inside than I am,” she told her sister. “What’s inside you has to come out. It should come out. Those are things you do, to go here and travel there. You can do them,” Heidi said, and paused. “For myself, I would hate that. If I was in a hotel room, far from home for some reason, week after week – for any reason – I would have a calendar up on the refrigerator, if they have those in hotel rooms. A big calendar, the old-fashioned paper kind with scenic photographs of Canada plastered across the top of each month. And every day that I managed to get through, away from home, I would put a big X through that day on my calendar. And every day until I got back home, back into my kitchen, I would be counting down on that calendar, to check and see how many days left before I got home.

“And every minute, that I was away from my home and my family, away from my kitchen – and away from the back window in my kitchen over the sink and the orchids and the little cactus plants on the windowsill and the vast beautiful prairie outside, that goes on and on and on – every minute of that, I would regret. Every minute, I would resent. I would count down those minutes. There would not be one minute of that, being away from home, that I didn’t hate. I’m a Mennonite woman. That’s what’s inside of me. Jealousy or no jealousy, that’s what’s inside of me.

“Well, I’m a Mennonite woman too,” answered Winnie, after a moment of thought, regathering herself. “I’m like our grandmother too. But in a different way.”

“Yes, I know that,” Heidi answered. “I know you are too. A Mennonite woman too. And my sister.” They stopped their conversation to hug each other and kiss, with hugs that long delayed before separating, and kisses that were wet with tears.

While this was going on, two more women entered the coffee house. They made their way over to the general seating area where we were situated. They had coffee cups, so they had been to the counter already and were looking for available booth seating. Both women were African. One was relatively tall, with shoulder length brunette hair, a high forehead, jumbo golden hoop earrings, a red, mid-calf dress that might have served in a business setting with large gold buttons, with a white, starched and pressed collar extending almost down to the first gold button. She had an inviting, disarming smile and wore lipstick that matched her red dress. Her nails were done in matching red and she wore a gold wedding ring. Around her neck was a slender gold crucifix on a chain.

Her companion was not as tall, had a short haircut, a broader face; she was wearing a brown and beige printed blouse with African-themed designs and beige slacks with a distinct crease. She was wearing a wedding ring also and a slender gold watch, but no other jewelry, and with her short hair and general appearance looked distinctly non-American. She also was smiling, with even a broader smile, which also did not appear to be directed at anyone in particular, but just her standard, out-in-public disarming expression.

Winnie, standing beside the long central table, watched them with idle curiosity for a few moments. Then her face changed, her eyes grew wider and she blurted out to the taller woman wearing a red dress. “Wait! Wait! I know you. I know who you are! I heard you speak in New York! You’re Irene Kankindi! You spoke about Rwanda. You were there. It was terrible to hear firsthand, but you were a moving speaker. So eloquent. Such a witness to faith. I took in every word.”

Winnie’s spontaneous declaration directed everyone’s attention to Irene. “Yes, yes,” admitted Irene. “Thank you for your kind words. I have spoken in New York, several times. And this is my friend from Rwanda, Mona Sirake,” Irene nodded at her companion. “We met at a refugee camp in Rwanda, and have been friends for many years.”

“I am in the United States because of Irene,” acknowledged Mona. Irene’s English was very good; Mona’s had a stronger African accent.

There was a period of introductions and handshaking among every one of the women sitting or standing. I studiously examined my cell phone. The women standing remained as such, with no apparent intention of taking a seat. Sarah and Rebecca, Ellen and Sandra resumed their seats. Winnie and Heidi, Irene and Mona, and Jen, who had never wandered away to return to work, remained standing, as if in at a cocktail party where hors d’oeuvres are being served.

“I don’t really know what happened in Rwanda,” Ellen admitted. “I’ve heard of it, and there was a lot of killing. But that’s it. I’m geographically challenged. I’m sorry. I don’t even really know where it is.” Ellen addressed Irene. “Were you there? Did something happen to your family?”

“Did you ever see the movie Hotel Rwanda?” Irene asked.

“No,” admitted Ellen.

“I have,” Rebecca said. “It was sad. Kind of shocking. A little like that movie Schindler’s List. One person trying to stop a whole group of people from being killed, you know, using his position. In Schindler’s list, it was a factory. In Hotel Rwanda, it was a hotel. When you think about it, it’s just sad. I don’t even understand it. Why do people do those things? Isn’t there enough sadness and death? And it comes so quickly on its own. Why do we have to add to it?”

I sighed inwardly with agreement. Irene began to narrate her story, which she had apparently repeated many times.

“Rwanda is in central Africa,” explained Irene, answering the geography questions first. “It’s tiny, in comparison to America. With many beautiful hills, many beautiful lakes. Bordered by majestic mountains, including active volcanoes. It’s like heaven. It’s where gorillas live, and so many other animals. I was born near one of those lakes, Lake Kivu, in a small country village. My parents were teachers in the Catholic school system in our district. I didn’t know what tribe I belonged to, Hutu or Tutsi, until I was ten years old. No one had explained I was a Tutsi, that that meant I was in one tribe, and some people were Hutu, and that meant they were in a different tribe. I never knew as a child, and it had never mattered before that, when a teacher asked me what tribe I belonged to.

“The distinctions didn’t make any sense to me. We speak the same language. We sing the same songs. We farm the same land. Most of us are Christians, Catholic or Protestant. We worship the same God. Tutsi and Hutu children play tag and go exploring with each other. We lived in the same villages, a Tutsi family next a Hutu family. We buy and sell cows with each other.

“Women gossiped with each other. The men drank banana beer with each other.  But for years, Tutsi’s had been leaving the country to live as expatriates in surrounding countries, like Uganda and Tanzania and Burundi. There were troubles that went back to the 1950s and with the Belgians who had colonized us.

“As a teenager I was accepted at one of the top girl’s schools in Rwanda. I was one of the few Tutsi students allowed to attend, because when you got older, it started to matter. The differences etched in deeper and deeper, because of the politics and fighting. In 1990 I was in the final year at the girls’ school. I was told by a teacher that Tutsi rebel soldiers from Uganda had crossed the border and were fighting with Rwandan government soldiers. The rebels were Tutsis exiled from Rwanda, or their children. They wanted to get back into our own country, after being driven out. They weren’t allowed back into Rwanda by the Hutu President.

“There was a radio station that was broadcasting terrible things about the Tutsis. The government radio called the Tutsis ‘cockroaches.’ A group of us from the school went out for a picnic and a group of local Hutu men looked at me and one of them started waving a big knife. He saw how tall I was, and assumed I was a Tutsi. He told our group he would kill me first – a teenage girl. Because I was tall, and that meant I was a Tutsi.

“People were giving names of prominent Tutsis to the authorities – especially around the capital, Kigali. The government started to gather up Tutsis in mass arrests. My father was arrested. An old friend had given his name to the authorities – even though we were far from Kigali. My father was an educator, a prominent figure. Finally, under pressure, the President of Rwanda ordered the release of many of the Tutsis who had been arrested. My father insisted it was all a mix-up. He couldn’t believe that his old friend had given his name for arrest.

“While this was going on, I was awarded a scholarship to the National University, not easy for a Tutsi to get. I went, and for two years things didn’t touch me personally, even though the fighting continued. But the President’s political party organized a youth movement called Interahamwe. They became a militia – like some sort of African storm troopers, Hutu-extremist militia. They traveled in packs and wore a kind of uniform, with baggy print shirts and red, yellow and green colors that looked like a flag.” Irene paused to gather her next thoughts. “They were street-bullies to anyone they met on the street they thought was Tutsi. Threatening people – beating people up. People watched what they did, and it was mean, but they wouldn’t say a word to stop them. They were too afraid.”

I thought about the Brown Shirts in Germany in the late 1920’s and 30’s – Irene’s story was familiar.

“While I was on the campus, that radio station never stopped, broadcasting about Hutu power and killing the Tutsi cockroaches. My family wanted me to come home for Easter vacation. When I got home, my brother and my father had a discussion about whether there was any truth to the stories about death squads and death lists being prepared for Tutsis by the Interahamwe. My father was in denial. He was convinced things were going to get better,” Irene said.

Familiar indeed, I thought. The man I called grandfather, Littman, had heated quarrels with his wife over leaving Germany in the 1930s. Eventually he did leave, and she did not. She died in a concentration camp along with their daughters. Later, in the U.S., after living in Shanghai and emigrating to Canada, Littman met my grandmother, divorced by my grandfather, in an evening class for remedial English in New Jersey. They would marry about the time I was born.

“Then the Hutu president of Rwanda was assassinated when his plane was shot down. Of course, everyone blamed Tutsis,” Irene continued. “The government came under the control of extremists. The radio announced that Tutsis were going to be killed to avenge the president’s death. The announcer sounded positively gleeful about the prospect of killing Tutsis. My uncle was killed, which sent my mother into shock. Then we knew we had to escape our village. It was April 7, 1994.

“The local radio station was encouraging Hutus to pick up machetes to attack their Tutsi neighbors. The national radio told people to remain in their homes. We just sat, numb, in our home, listening to the radio. Rwanda’s prime minister was a woman named Agathe, and she was a moderate Hutu. Moderate Hutus were also on the government death lists. Government soldiers burst into her home and shot Agathe and her husband. Luckily, her children were rescued. There were a few UN peacekeepers around. The UN peacekeepers that were trying to protect them were all murdered too.

“My mother was emotionally undone. We were captives in our own home. We knew we were going to have to leave. She went around the house, trying to pack every suitcase she could find with every single possession we owned. As if we could drag it all with us. Or as if she could find some hiding place for it. My mother was convinced that she needed to hide away all their possessions, so they could come back for them all. My father was in complete denial about a rescue, even when he had to acknowledge the danger. There was an armed force of Tutsis fighting at the border of Rwanda, far from our home. My father kept thinking that this Tutsi armed force, called the RFP, was going to come and rescue us in a matter of days – which was totally impossible. My brother was emotionally dislocated, too – he just stared at the walls of our home for hours, not speaking.

“The next day the Interahamwe attacks began in our village. We heard screaming – our neighbors were screaming. We ran from our home and went to a nearby hilltop. We watched as one of our neighbors, who lived across a nearby river, was hacked to death by the Interahamwe. My father was a respected man with a professional position. Everyone knew who he was. Tutsis from all over our village began streaming to our house for protection. When we returned to our home, we soon had two thousand people, men, women and children, camped around our house, with no place else to go. They wanted my father to tell them what to do. At least having all those people around brought my father back to reality. He told everyone to stay calm, and he tried to think more clearly about what had to be done.

“By the next day, we had ten thousand Tutsis camped around our house. There was a huge crowd. My father gave a speech to everyone. ‘Love will conquer hatred,’ he said. Everyone was looking to him. I was very proud of him. But he knew that if the Interahamwe were being armed by the government, we couldn’t resist. The government had guns and grenades to give the Interahamwe. All of them had machetes. We had no weapons at all,” Irene explained.

This also sounded familiar. The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland had wanted to fight the Nazis, but they had no weapons. Their resistance collapsed under German artillery fire and they were slaughtered. It raised legal questions in my mind. But the complexity of the arguments about the 2nd Amendment and questions about the right to bear arms – who gets that right? – who gets to police it? – – would have to wait for another day. Irene kept on speaking

“Every day more Tutsi refugees were showing up around our home. If they tried to hide in the countryside, Hutu women would point out their hiding places to the Interahamwe. Every family that arrived had a horror story to tell about killing and death. Husbands and wives and their small children. We were surrounded. I had a conversation with my father, and he give me a gift, a red and white rosary and told me to keep it always. My father sent me and my brother away from our house, to the house of a local pastor, a nearby neighbor named Mataba.

“Mataba was a Protestant and we were Catholics, but we were long family friends. Soon after, our house was burned down by the Interhamwe. Everything my father had believed about how things would work out was wrong. Everything he thought about the RFP coming to rescue us was wrong. Apart from the danger, and the shock of losing our home, it was hard to see my father so unable to grasp the events around us – I so hero-worshipped him as a child – since then, I have been many things, but never again a child.

“People were being hunted down now, like animals, running across fields and roads. Pastor Mataba brought into his home five other Tutsi women. I knew them, but not well. We heard shouting outside the house – ‘kill them! Kill them all! We hid in Pastor Mataba’s bedroom. Pastor Mataba came in and told us they were going house to house to find and kill Tutsis. My brother had to leave. It was too dangerous for anyone, even a pastor, to harbor Tutsi men. I was angry at Pastor Mataba, even though he was risking his own life to protect us, because he was turning my brother out to be killed.

“I said goodbye to my brother with tears. Pastor Mataba led all six of us, Tutsi women and girls, into a dark hallway. He led us into a small bathroom about four feet long and three feet wide. There was a shower stall at one end and a toilet at another. There wasn’t even enough room for a sink,” Irene paused. I thought about the Diary of Anne Frank.

“We had to be absolutely silent. Pastor Mataba did not even want his children to know that he was hiding us. We had to wait until we heard someone else using the toilet, before we were allowed to flush it. There wasn’t enough room for all of us to move at the same time. The four tallest women had to push our backs against the wall and slide down to the tile floor. Then the smaller girls sat on our laps. The youngest of our group was a seven years old girl. The oldest was 55. I was praying. Praying the Rosary. Praying the Our Father. Trying to silence the words of Satan, whispering in my ear, bringing raw fear into my soul.

“The next day, we heard Pastor Mataba talking to someone outside, denying he knew anything, denying that he was hiding anyone. He was risking his life, because if we were caught in his house, he would have been called a moderate, which was same thing to the Interahamwe as being called a traitor. They surely would have killed him. At night he brought us a thin mattress and some food.

“We could hear singing outside. The Interahamwe were singing a song – ‘kill them all.’ Irene paused. “’Kill them. Kill. Kill them all.’ They were drunk. That was their song – their song of rage and death. Some of them were my neighbors, young men I knew from the village or the district. I had known them since we were small children together.

“I prayed. But the devil was whispering in my ear. ‘Why are you calling on God? They’re going to find you. They’re going to rape you. They’re going to kill you.’ I couldn’t believe how loud that voice was, how insistent. But I kept praying, praying that they couldn’t find us. I prayed they couldn’t find our little bathroom door. I saw God like two pillars of white light, like two giant legs. In my mind, I wrapped my arms around these legs. I told God I would not let go, until he sent the killers away.

“Later on, Pastor Mataba moved a large piece of furniture, a wardrobe in the hallway. He pushed it in front of our little bathroom door, so the door was completely hidden. With the door to the bathroom hidden, we were hidden. He brought us scraps of food and water at night, and I prayed harder and longer than ever. Outside our hiding place, Tutsis were murdered by the thousands. And then by the tens and hundreds of thousands, all across the country. At night, Pastor Mataba would come in and give us news. Churches Tutsis ran into for shelter, were set on fire by the Interahamwe. Inside the bathroom, piled on top of each other, I couldn’t control my own feelings. I was overwhelmed with feelings of anger and hatred. I wanted to drop an atomic bomb on our stupid, hateful country and kill everyone.

Every day I spent 12 hours in the bathroom, saying Hail Marys and Our Fathers under my breath. Drunk men, chanting about killing, searched the house, looking for Tutsis to kill, but they didn’t find the hall, or even if they found the hall, they didn’t find our bathroom door hidden behind the wardrobe. I tried to forgive them. I asked God to help. While all this was going on, while we were hiding in the bathroom day after day, fighting was going between Tutsi RFP forces and the government. The government was trying to wipe every trace of the Tutsis from the face of the earth. Not just killing us all, man, woman and child, but burning birth certificates and death certificates and marriage licenses. Not a Tutsi footprint was to be left in the country. As if we never existed – to be liquidated beyond human memory. A million people, brought to death.”

Oh my, I thought to myself – all so familiar – another ‘final solution.’ For Jews, or Tutsis, or whoever else is on the list in the next generation. And no matter how many are killed, it never seems to be final enough.

“Later on,” Irene continued, interrupting my thoughts, “Pastor brought two more Tutsi women into hiding in our bathroom. When they came in, they told us they saw the piles of corpses across the countryside. Our bathroom was even more jammed. The seven-year old slept in my lap. We were in the bathroom for seven weeks, and I lost 40 pounds. Our skin was sagging – the amount of food the Pastor could bring us was nowhere near enough. We hadn’t showered, so we had body lice. Our lips were cracked and our gums were swollen and sore. Finally, after two months in the bathroom, French U.N. troops arrived in the area. The U.N. had set up guarded camps for Tutsi survivors. Pastor Mutaba brought us out at night, still in hiding. We made our way to the French camp. We were trembling all over, nothing but skin and bones. When we got into the camp, we all began to sob uncontrollably.” Irene stopped.

I thought I could guess what they looked like after months hiding in a small bathroom with not much food or any exercise, and in need of medical attention.

“It was in the refugee camp that I met Mona,” Irene said.

Mona, who had said so little up until this point, began speaking. Her English was more accented and less practiced than Irene’s, so listening carefully was necessary. “I was in the French refugee camp under some false pretenses. I am a Rwandan, as Irene is, because that is what we all are. Rwandans first. But my ethnic background is Hutu, not a Tutsi. I made my way into the refugee camp out of fear for my life, but with a story only partly true.

“I was from the country of Rwanda, a very small village. I lost my virginity when I was a young teenager. Rwanda is a very conservative country. I quarreled with my parents and came on my own to Kilgali – to the big city, the capital. At first, I lived in the corners and the alleys. After that, I had a series of boyfriends. Without my virginity, I was not considered suitable for marriage. In Kilgali, there were names for girls like me, but it doesn’t matter.

“In the years when the fighting broke out, I had a boyfriend. And it doesn’t matter what his name is either. He was Hutu, as I am. When the Interahamwe were organized by the army, my boyfriend became very involved, very quickly. He soon was promoted to a leadership role and the army began training him with weapons. He became an Interahamwe leader. They were like a youth brigade for the Hutu extremists and the army. He wore the clothes you heard Irene describe, a baggy print shirt, with red, yellow and green colors that looked like a flag. He was very proud of them. He was very proud, when they would go out, dressed in their colors, and people showed them respect, and fear. People would walk across the street to one side, if they saw my boyfriend and his gang, coming on the other side. They would look straight ahead, walking quickly to get away, and pretend not to notice.

“We lived together,” Mona continued, then paused. “in a rented room, in Kilgali, when the big killings started. The airplane of the Hutu President was shot down. The radio came on and said Tutsis had done it, and we should round them up. My boyfriend did not hesitate. The army contacted him. He gathered with his Interahamwe group. He had a rifle and a machete. They went out that night and I did not ask where they were going or what they were going to do.

“When he came back, very late, there was blood on his clothes. He was in a mood to go to bed with me. We went to bed for what he wanted. The next morning, I washed his clothes. He was tired. He slept late. When he arose from our bed, he told me he was going out to a particular crossroads, they were setting up a checkpoint there, to look for Tutsis.

“I knew the checkpoint. After he left, I packed him a lunch. Later that day, I went there, and brought him his lunch. There were people milling around. There were men chanting, including my boyfriend. And there were bodies on the ground.” Mona stopped and looked away briefly. “I did not ask anything. That night I washed his clothes. The next day, I brought him his lunch again. When he came back later that evening, his clothes were bloody again. I washed them again,” Mona continued. “He wanted to go to bed with me again. He was drunk. He was also very passionate, very excited. He said many things, talking very quickly. After we were done, he collapsed into heavy sleep.

“This continued for several weeks. The checkpoint changed sometimes. If I could walk there, I brought him his lunch. The hour that he came back changed sometimes. His clothes weren’t always bloody. He wasn’t always drunk. But often, it was as I have described. One day, when he was not there, a man came from the army and said he had a paper with a list of names for my boyfriend. I did not ask, whose names were on the list, or why. I took the paper with the list of names, and gave it my boyfriend that night when he came back. After some weeks, he complained to me. ‘The Tutsi women were hiding. They had gone out into the countryside and were hiding – hiding in hills and ravines.’” Mona paused in her story.

“I knew the country where they were hiding. I knew it well. I had grown up there. I knew where someone could hide. I had grown up with the Tutsi girls in our village. They had more nice things than I did. But I knew where they would hide. We had played there as children, all along the river and the hollows and the caves and the ravines. Behind the hills. Rwanda is so beautiful . It has beautiful green hills, with little folds of streams nestled to run through them, with lovely, overhanging trees. I offered to help my boyfriend, to show him where the little folds of streams were – where the ravines and the little caves were. He was pleased with me.

“He had a car from someone in the army. There were trucks that followed us. We went out to the countryside, to the villages I knew well.” Mona stopped, and composed herself, to speak in a clear, voice, in which strong emotion was controlled with some difficulty. “You heard Irene say ‘If they tried to hide in the countryside, Hutu women would point them out.’” Mona paused. “I am that woman.” She stopped speaking altogether, then repeated, “I am that woman.” She did not speak loudly, but the intensity of her emotion almost vibrated from her.

“I pointed them out to my boyfriend, the hiding places I knew. We went from one place to another. Some of the places were being used as hiding places. Some were not. Where Tutsi women were hiding, the army and the Interahamwe, who had come in the trucks, brought out those women. My boyfriend was the leader. He was the big shot who everybody listened to. I would tell him, and he would say to the army officer – ‘We need to go here, or we need to go there.’ When we found where they were hiding, the Tutsi women, some of them women I knew from when we were girls, were brought out. They were raped, and they were murdered. At some point, I could not watch anymore. I could not listen any longer. I started home. I took a path I knew, that was not on the road. It was a long walk. Many hours. When I got back to the road closer to Kilgali, there were bodies at the crossroads. I came home very late. My boyfriend was already back in our room, and already asleep.

“Not long after that, my boyfriend wanted me to do that again. I found excuses, I said I wasn’t sure of any other hiding places. He told me he knew I was lying. He said I was turning into a moderate. So we had a big fight. He went out and got drunk. When he came back, he was too drunk to beat me up. He was staggering around the room. He was barely able to stand. But he told me he was going to kill me. The way they killed the other moderates. He passed out soon after, and I left our room. I made my way out of Kilgali, from one refugee camp, and then another.

“I moved around for weeks. I knew he was looking for me. I didn’t want him to find me. Then the French soldiers took me on one of their trucks. Everywhere I went, I said I was a moderate Hutu. That’s what I told the French officer when I was questioned. I was a refugee, a Hutu moderate refugee. I said I knew nothing of the killings, I ran because my life was in danger. The French brought me to another camp, and that’s where I met Irene.

“Irene was my friend in the camp. Her French was very good and she could talk easily to the soldiers. Irene and I talked about what had happened, but I didn’t say much about myself. One night, we prayed together. Then I told her the whole story, not just the story that I had been telling everyone else. About the hiding places. About the Tutsi women. Irene forgave me. She forgave me. I cannot tell you, what that meant. I told her about my boyfriend, and the soldiers, and the hiding places I knew about and showed them, and the long walk home. And she forgave me.”

“I had been baptized as a child in the local Catholic church. She brought me to a little Catholic service we had in the camp. And she has been my friend since then, and I have been hers. I was one of her bridesmaids, at her wedding.” Mona concluded with dignity, albeit with a moistness in her eyes.

The group was quiet. “We are sisters,” Irene said, putting her arm around Mona.

“But so much death,” Rebecca said. “Death, and more death.”

“It so sad. It raises questions, questions in your mind,” observed Sarah. “When I think about things like that, I try to find reasons. But sometimes, I just can’t.”

“It’s hard to find a reason. There are no reasons you can find, for all that,” Heidi said. “And if there were a reason, I wouldn’t want to know it. But I’m glad for you two, that you’re friends and sisters now. If there is any reason for any of it, that must part of the reason.”

Abruptly, Jen spoke up. “You know, after the crucifixion, they sent some women to the tomb to dress Jesus’ body. Spices and perfume for a dead body – it was mundane work. No surprise it was given to women to do. Get up before dawn and prepare a body for burial – women’s work. The women rested on the Sabbath. Their hearts were broken. Then they got up early while the men were asleep. They got to the tomb, and it was dark. They were wondering about the stone. When the angels appeared, the women bowed down in fear. ‘Why do you look for the living, among the dead?’ That’s what the angel asked. At a gravesite, with a missing stone, and a missing body.”

Jen paused, looking at Irene and Mona. “I hear you. I know it’s a terrible story. Rwanda. The Interahamwe. Hutus and Tutsis. Murder and rape. Dead bodies along the roads. Burned out churches. But this is a Christian coffee house. Why should we look for the living, among the dead? In Rwanda, or anywhere else?” She paused again, and addressed a question to Irene. “What is Rwanda like now?”

“Today, Rwanda is a country where people care about each other,” Irene answered. “It’s a country that cares about justice. It’s a country that forgives. It doesn’t forget – how could you forget? But it forgives. It’s a country moving forward.”

Jen nodded. Irene’s answer appeared to satisfy everyone. The four women who came in originally talked among themselves, and made their way out, with their Russian dolls. Winnie Archer and her sister Heidi finally took their seats, and finished their drinks. Soon they also made their way out. Shortly, Irene and Mona, those two friends, made their way out as well. I was quiet, thinking about what I had heard. Jen busied herself with her tasks and her other customers for a short time. Then she noticed me still sitting.

“Did you enjoy your fish and chips?” she walked over and asked.

I looked at her with some surprise. “Well – yes, I did,” I admitted.

“What did you think about the two women from Rwanda?” Jen asked.

“Their stories are moving,” I answered. “Overwhelming, really.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Almost beyond what anyone could imagine. Terrible beyond what anyone could imagine.”

“You had something to say, too, though.” I replied.

“Yes. Yes, I did. Although when you’re talking about the human race – ”

“The human race – ” I agreed. “What hath God wrought?” – but it wasn’t really a question.

“But she survived,” Jen asked rhetorically, “didn’t she? Not among the dead, but among the living.”

“They both did,” I answered. “But not everyone who came in here today may be coming back next year. You heard one of them say, her cancer is terminal.”

“None of us know,” Jen replied. “No, not one.” Jen paused in thought, then moved on to another topic. “You’re a student of the Bible, aren’t you? I see you reading it in here often. What did you think about the business with the rosary and the Hail Mary’s? Twelve hours a day?”

“Perhaps I questioned that,” I answered. “But you know, you corrected me some time ago in here, for expressing my opinions too loudly, too strenuously, about the Bible.”

“You won’t be disturbing any paying customers now,” she laughed.

“Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” I recited. “That’s what I think. But I say that with respect for a woman who has been through a great deal, and relied on her faith to survive. I don’t know whether I could have had the faith to do the same. I might have just walked out into the open and said to my attackers, ‘just get it over with.’ Or maybe God’s grace would have worked on me too. You can’t know about something like that. You don’t know how you would respond.”

Jen nodded at me, but said nothing more. She stood for a moment in thought, then turned to attend to some paying customers who just came in, customers who did not bring in fish and chips from the outside. She pulled her dish towel out of her pocket in a businesslike way to take their order.


The fictional character of Sarah in the foregoing vignette is modeled in part on my friend, Susan Correll Foy. Her ‘confession’ is my dramatic invention, and more reflective of my shortcomings than hers. Susan Foy’s historical Christian-themed novels may be found on and ordered from Amazon.

The fictional character Winnie Archer is modeled in part on Dr. Kate Bowler, well known Christian writer and educator. She is a Professor of history of Christianity in North America at the Duke Divinity School. Parts of her dialogue were inspired by (or plagiarized) from her book Everything Happens for a Reason, a New York Times hardcover nonfiction best seller, as well as from articles found on her website,

The fictional character Irene Kankindi is modeled on Immaculee Ilibagiza, who lived through the Rwandan holocaust. She is now a U.S. citizen, a full time public speaker and writer who has received many awards for her work to prevent another such tragedy. Large parts of her dialogue are lifted from her book Left to Tell, Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Because of the importance of her story, I tried to maintain her narrative as a reasonably straight factual abstract from her book. Ms. Ilibagiza’s second book, Led by Faith, is in many respects even more interesting, as she explores the difficult personal, social and political issues which confronted her and the people of Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide.

Irene’s Hutu friend Mona is my dramatic creation, but Mona’s narrative is intended to reflect in a general way actual events and actions of people who were involved.

For another perspective on Rwanda and the events of the genocide, I recommend Land of a Thousand Hills, My Life in Rwanda, by Rosamond Halsey Carr, Penguin Group, 1999. Ms. Carr went to Rwanda as an American operating a plantation with her husband, and ultimately operated an orphanage for children orphaned in the Rwandan holocaust. Although much of Ms. Carr’s book confirms Ms. Ilibagiza’s accounts, Ms. Carr’s perspective on the political events leading up to the genocide is quite different from Ms. Ilibagiza’s.

In memoriam, Barbara Evelyn Fallat, March 14, 1960 – October 13, 2019. Barbara was my good friend, and my wife Erma’s ‘best friend forever’ from their days in youth group at Red Lion Evangelical Church. Barbara ‘released’ Erma to go off with me, on the first weekend we met at a Christian Single’s conference at Sandy Cove. Barbara’s love, kindness and sharp sense of humor will always be remembered, but never replaced. Barbara, blessed of God, requiescat in pace, until we meet again.




I brought my mother to my brother Lynn’s funeral at the funeral home in Lansdale, PA on Thursday, September 15, 1988. My mother was forever nicknamed and known to everyone as ‘Jimmy,’ although her real name was Florence, (‘when is Little Jimmy due?’ had been the teasing question posed to my grandmother when she was pregnant with my mother in 1925). I can’t remember now whether or not I picked her up that morning in Philadelphia, or she came in the night before and stayed at our house in Phoenixville overnight. She was in a state of light shock, I think, not crying or even openly demonstrating great grief. There had been shocking events in her life before. My brother had died on Sunday, September 11, 1988 (odd and sad coincidence with the later 9/11 event) and I had called and told her then. My memory, which often is reasonably good with details, fails me on some of these points of communication with my mother during the week of my brother’s death and funeral. By Thursday, our family was outwardly composed.

Shortly after lunch on Sunday I had received a call at our home in Phoenixville from my father. He told me that Lynn had been taken to North Penn hospital in Lansdale. He was emotionally upset, much unlike my father – he told me they didn’t know what was wrong with Lynn or why. In response to my questions, my father told me that when they brought Lynn to the hospital he wasn’t breathing. Erma found some babysitting for our children – Laurie was two years old, Nathan was six months – and we took the forty-minute car trip to the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital my father was there with his wife, both looking sad and grim. Joanne, my sister-in-law, was looking the same. Not much was said. We waited outside the emergency room for some time, possibly an hour or two. No one seemed to have any information about what was the cause or how this could had happened or why. Finally someone came out from the emergency room to tell us Lynn had passed and invited us to come in to see him.

We filed into the emergency room, with its stark lighting, medical equipment surrounding the walls, tile floor, lack of any other humanizing or softening fixtures or details. I don’t remember if there was a chair; in any event, everyone stood. Any words spoken picked up a slight reverberating echo from the walls and ceiling. My brother’s body was laid across a gurney. His head was leaning back and somewhat twisted over the edge of the gurney, not terribly, but in a way no living person would ever find comfortable. His neck looked almost huge, perhaps from the angle he lay. One could see that unanimated by life, a human head is large. The neck muscles that support it are large.

I remembered him as my little brother, 2 and ½ years younger than I, my constant companion in childhood and into our teenage years. On the gurney was a man’s body, 34 years of age, light brown, blondish hair, brown eyes, handsome face – my brother Lynn’s face and body once, now dead, nothing but 175 pounds of unanimated flesh and bone. There is no gentle way to say how death looks, because there is no gentle way to see it or understand it. A recently dead body, no matter how much you loved the person once, is nothing but dead tissue. I wish I could be more tactful, but I would not be expressing my own feelings if I were. I mean no disrespect to my brother Lynn, or his family or anyone’s family, or anyone else who has suffered or will suffer grief. But the shock of sudden death is enormous and the difference between the living and the dead is enormous. I haven’t got words descriptive enough to express that chasm.

My father was weeping. There was little to say. After we returned home from the hospital, my wife gathered up our children again, and I drove to Valley Forge National Park to take a walk. I was filled with grief, and it must have been visible on my face. I walked a five-mile, asphalt-paved circular trail called the Joseph Plumb Martin trail, named for a Revolutionary War soldier who kept a diary. I have walked it many times, especially with Erma, when the trail was lovely, peaceful, refreshing, with moderate hills and an atmosphere of serenity. Valley Forge Park reflects a place where a great battle was won, but not a battle against another army, rather against doubt and despair and long odds and illnesses and hunger and cold, and against desperate measures and the uncertainty of outcomes. Men hoped in this one place against hope, where hope against such great odds, armed with such small resources, must have seemed almost delusional at the time.

But the trail offered no such serenity on that day. It was plunged in grief as I was. As I walked about halfway through, I was approaching a young, heavy-set woman with light brown hair and some freckles, rather Irish in appearance, probably about 30 years old. She looked at my face, and then simply said, “come here.” I did so, and she gave me a full, complete, lengthy hug, with her arms wrapped around my shoulders. I hugged her back in my short-armed, somewhat taken-aback sort of way. But I didn’t break off the hug either. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since. She said hardly a word beyond what was just recalled. After our long hug broke off, she said nothing at all further, but resumed her walk, and I did the same, each of us heading along the trail in opposite directions.

A day or two later, I was kneeling in prayer at the foot of my bed. I don’t remember my prayer, or in what way I invoked the death of my brother before God. But I do remember a feeling of grief so powerful that it was as if I were being physically strangled. I don’t know if others have experienced grief in such a physical way, or if, when others do experience it, it takes a different physical expression. But for me, it was as if grief had two physical hands wrapped around my throat, to strangle me.

Some things about the day of the funeral I do remember distinctly. It was a beautiful, sunny, early fall, September kind of day. I remember carrying the casket in the bright sun at the funeral home in Lansdale, Pennsylvania on Cannon Avenue. Erma was quiet; she had considerable experience with death from an early age. She offered no explanation and asked for none. September 15 happened to be our wedding anniversary, but we had made no special plans and nothing needed to be canceled. On the day of the funeral, our children were probably being watched by Erma’s mother, Edna Wagner. Our children Elise and Amy had not yet been born.

The sight of my dead brother Lynn, prepared by the funeral home, laying in the open coffin, was grotesque and revolting, although that was no fault of the funeral home. His hair was combed differently than he had in life, but that wasn’t why it was grotesque and revolting. His face was drawn in a long, narrow, frozen mask, but that wasn’t why. He was wearing a suit that he never wore in life, but that wasn’t why. The funeral home had done a good job under the circumstances. Death is grotesque and revolting. Dead bodies are grotesque and revolting.

If someone wants to tell me that death is the natural end of life and to accept it maturely and embrace it – well, they are entitled to their words, I suppose, and maybe they make sense when said of someone who is 89 or 99 years old and has passed peacefully and unremarkably. But as far as I am concerned, no amount of preparation or prettification does a damn thing for death. When a young person dies, it is grotesque and revolting, and to look at the body of a young person, my only, younger brother, whom I loved, made me both physically and spiritually ill. I had to look away.

There was a homily given by a pastor known, not to my brother, but to my father, which was gentle and kind. He was a pastor from a UCC church I believe, probably from the same church which maintains the graveyard where both my brother and father are buried in Montgomery County. He was a fairly tall, grey-haired, distinguished man, who could have played the part of some Roman patrician in a Bible drama, but his manner was comforting and compassionate. He did not distance himself from our family’s pain. I knew my brother was not a Christian, and I was very much engaged at that time in Christian volunteer activity. I was grateful that he treated my brother as one of the ‘dearly departed.’ The pastor quoted from the Book of Revelation, the lines from chapter 21, verse 4: “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” I was grateful for the words.

On our way to the burial site from the funeral service we stopped to eat lunch at a shopping center outside Lansdale at the intersection of Sumneytown Pike and S. Valley Forge Road. Erma, my mother and I conducted the ordinary business of making selections from the long lists of choices at a Chinese food restaurant. I watched my mother carefully as she looked over the menu to order her food, trying to get a sense of her mood. She had been exceptionally quiet.

My mother’s interest in food had not diminished – whatever grief she was feeling, she took pleasure, as she always did, in looking over a menu and ordering her food. When her food came, she ate with her usual gusto. I ate a normal lunch also. By Thursday, we had all digested our grief enough to carry on. But my mother had no ‘big questions’ to ask or discuss that day. Often she wanted to start a discussion to solve some monumental social problem (Jimmy loved the open-form question, “why don’t they . . . .” as in, ‘why don’t they make every child in America learn a trade before they go to college?’). She didn’t say much at lunch and didn’t look up at us very much.

I remember my sister-in-law, Joanne, at the burial site. She appeared sober and sad, without much movement of her facial muscles. At that time, what I did not know was that she knew what had caused my brother’s death. I was consumed with an indignant, demanding curiosity about my brother’s death at the age of 34. I badgered the Montgomery County coroner’s office weekly, until after about two months or so, his autopsy was made available, which disclosed that the cause of his death was an overdose of heroin. Joanne didn’t say what she knew at the funeral – not that we talked a great deal on that day. Years later, Joanne told me that when she found Lynn in the upstairs bathroom that Sunday morning, after returning from some short trip or errand she and their two-year old daughter Sara had gone on, she found the needle and works there with him. So Joanne knew right away, but said nothing for a very long time.

What Joanne did do, as she told me much later, was to search the house from end to end and inspected every possible nook and cranny, ransacking their home to make sure there were no other drugs in the house. She didn’t know that my brother had relapsed until that day; but had she known, the marriage would have instantly dissolved, and she would have been permanently gone from the house with Sara in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Lynn knew that, so his choice of day and time to re-indulge the old ways was based on his knowledge of Joanne and Sara’s expected absence from their home for a few hours. My brother and Joanne were each capable of keeping their secrets close to the vest.

Perhaps Joanne had a little hint, not that she could have done much about it – Joanne later told me that a few weeks previously, a friend of Lynn’s (I knew him too) from the old drug-days in high school in the late 1960’s and early 1970s, had appeared at the house. Joanne had come home to find tall, dark-haired, grinning Dave G. in the living room. She knew approximately who he was or at least that he was an old friend of Lynn’s from high school, which meant there were absolutely no good possibilities or influences to result from the appearance of Dave G.

My brother had a fierce heroin addiction in high school when he was a senior; his high school girl friend went to my father and told him when the situation had gotten totally out of hand. That resulted in steps of rehabilitation and reform, apparently successful, allowing my brother to carry on in 1971 and enter college the next year. But in the late summer of 1988 my brother presented some plausible explanation to Joanne as to why Dave G. had dropped in unannounced. That seemed to be the end of the matter, or, I daresay, so Joanne hoped.

My last vivid memory of Lynn was a visit we took with our children to their house which may have been oriented around Sara’s 2nd birthday that summer.  He had recently, or was going to soon schedule, a sight-seeing passenger ride in one of the hot-air balloons that were springing up as recreational activities, which sounded interesting. He was sitting on the living room floor, building up toy blonde wooden blocks and making structures with them.  Sara watched at his elbow. Lynn would build the structure until it fell down, then build up a new block structure again. Lynn could summon up a quiet, determined, unshakeable concentration. When he had been a boy, he and a friend had constructed mammoth model cities, a veritable empire, with plastic buildings and block structures, to run model race cars through on tracks that supplied electric power to the cars, spread opulently across multiple rooms in our large third-floor attic, which had once been servant’s quarters.

I took my mother back to Philadelphia that evening, and then attended the prison-ministry activities which were customary for me on a Thursday evening. Initially, I went to a small Baptist church in Hunting Park and waited, with an extremely pleasant, elderly woman (Margaret, I think). Margaret remembered when the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, had visited Philadelphia when she was a very young girl and she had been taken to see him. According to Wikipedia, this visit was in 1907. Our meeting at the Baptist church was organized through Prison Fellowship, started by Chuck Colson of Watergate infamy, and was oriented toward supporting ex-offenders. Although we had occasional ex-offender visitors, generally we were there by ourselves, available if needed, which never seemed to offend or disturb Margaret. She was the very model of unshakeable faith.

After that I drove from Hunting Park to Holmesburg prison for the evening service, which didn’t usually begin until about 9 p.m. I may have been the only outside volunteer to appear that night, or the group of volunteers was small – the prison administration required one outside volunteer to appear in order to have the inmate service in the gymnasium. Holmesburg Prison, administered by the City of Philadelphia, was a grim place to look at and grimmer still to enter, but there was an active Christian congregation inside – the ‘Church behind the Wall.’ Normally I would not talk at length as an outside volunteer. There were often Pentecostal preachers from inner-city churches who were much better at preaching than I was. On this evening I was the only or main outside speaker. I told the men, who appeared as a small sea of blue prison uniforms seated on folding chairs in the gymnasium, that I had gone to my brother’s funeral that day. “There’s nothing I can do about him,” I told them. “But that’s why I’m here. There’s something I can do about you.” The men listened patiently and attentively, understanding what I meant, and I did not speak for too long. I did not have to give lengthy explanations to them about sadness, sorrow, or perseverance.

Many years later, I was eating lunch with a friend, Tom Walser, at the Iron Hill Brewery in West Chester. We were sitting at the tables provided outside in good weather. I don’t often bring up my past experiences with the Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, or drugs, but Tom was already aware of all that. At some point in our lunchtime conversation, I mentioned my brother and his death, and the guilt I felt about introducing him to the drug subculture when I returned (was returned by the authorities) to Lansdale in 1967. Tom made the point that the drug culture was already becoming pervasive at that time. Lynn would have been introduced to drugs in the 1960’s regardless of whether or not I was the person who introduced him to them. That was true, I acknowledged. I appreciated his point. But I was the one who introduced Lynn to drug use. It wasn’t anyone else – it was me.

After long reflection, I can say that maturity means understanding that your actions affect other people. Even if you are a really smart or a really lucky person, and can stick ten toes over the edge of something-or-another that’s dangerous, and walk away from it, and say ‘wow, that was a freaky experience,’ and count it among your adventures, maybe other people are watching. And maybe those people, influenced by your conduct and your example, are not going to be quite as smart or quite as lucky as you are. Maybe those people are going to be your younger brother, the only younger brother you have. If they’re not as smart or not as lucky, then you will have the experience that I had, of burying this person you love, age 34, in a neatly-dug hole in the ground, embraced by an expensive mahogany wooden casket, surrounded by a grim circle of people wearing formal dark blue colors, flowing out from underneath a temporary tent that was unneeded on such a sunny day, in a graveyard not too far from his home, or yours. Maturity means understanding that what we do affects other people. It is a lesson I have had time to learn.



A Directive, not to Wait, but to Act

The Book of Revelation urges us to a goal, a holy and joyful city. The Holy City is not a nation and wields no sword of the law (see Romans, ch. 13). The nations exist external to it. They walk by its light and bring their glory into it. The leaves of the Tree of Life are for the healing of the nations. The servants of God reign in the City for ever and ever. Revelation is addressed to seven churches, which stand for all churches. (Rev. 1:20). I am a postmillennialist (Jesus Christ returns after the millennium – the City is something that today we pursue, receive and will build). The Holy City is for this world, in human time and history, and for the world to come. Chronologically, Chapters 21 and 22 of the Book of Revelation which describe the City should be read as occurring both before, and after, Chapter 20.

Cities require organization and structure. Since the churches bear no sword, how do we organize anything? John Locke told us in his Letter Concerning Toleration that matters of conscience may not be left to the magistrate’s sword of compulsion, but are rather in the private domain of conscience. We do have a model, a persuasive letter that presents an example of Christian advocacy, which relies entirely on appeals to conscience. Its author bore no sword, was incarcerated when he wrote it, and had no means of compulsion other than the witness of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, it is the companion piece to Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke presenting the theory, and this much more recent letter, presenting one example of the practice.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (the “Letter”) was written in April, 1963. A circuit judge of Alabama issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” in Birmingham. On April 12, 1963, Dr. King along with some others was arrested for violating the injunction, and because they did not have a parade permit.

The Letter was addressed to Dr. King’s fellow clergyman. Dr. King was a Christian and he addressed the clergy of the Christian church as a peer. His audience was the Christian church in its many expressions as well as other interested people. Dr. King did not invoke exclusively Christian principles. He relied on the general justice that God presents and requires of all people. (As Abraham asked, “Will not the Judge of the whole world be just?” Gen. 18:25). Dr. King wrote to meet criticisms which he thought were sincere, and he wished to do so in “patient and reasonable terms.”

Dr. King explained that he came to Birmingham because “injustice is here,” and compared his activities to that of the Biblical prophets and the Apostle Paul. He refused to be tied geographically to any area, because whatever “affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Dr. King did not express admiration for demonstrations for their own sake, but found that “the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

Dr. King brought an indictment. “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case.”

Dr. King had previously initiated workshops on nonviolence. He did so because he believed nonviolent direct action would dramatize the issues and force the community to confront them. Inducing tension by means of demonstrative political action was intended by Dr. King. He pointed out that the problems were not merely the problems of individual personalities; it didn’t matter whether the open, antagonistic segregationist or the milder, gentler segregationist was elected mayor. The underlying problem was segregation, and that was a problem which persisted throughout administrations and personalities.

Powerfully, Dr. King separated his plea and indictment from local or temporal personalities, political issues, immediate elections, short-term decisions about this course of action versus that course of action, etc. “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.” Beginning with the words “But when you have seen . . .” he then described a series of injustices, violent acts, and humiliations that were the daily fare of twenty million people.

Dr. King’s scope was broad: twenty million people are a lot of people, and 340 years is a long time. He was persuasive because his was not a local political fight, resolved by another series of elections and the removal of a few disfavored politicians. His was not an argument over mere words or transient feelings, over being offended by something someone said, or rectified with the passage of this political bill as opposed to that one. He grounded his arguments in overwhelming facts, that, absent change, would be the same going forward in the future as they were in the past. Dr. King moved the argument to that with which many churches (one may perceive the ‘seven churches of Revelation’) ought to be concerned. The broad set of Christians, congregants of a broad set of churches, would be addressed by this appeal, whether they wished to be or not.

Law making, and law breaking

Then Dr. King began a discussion that transcended even the history of race relations in the United States. His discussion transcended a period even longer than three hundred years, because it had to do with the operation of the law, by which he meant moral law. People rely on ‘the law’ to assist in developing an orderly society, everywhere and always. There are rules in a cub scout meeting, rules in a prison, and rules on the floor of the Senate.

Dr. King’s next set of inquiries went to the heart of a dialogue that ushers in a millennial society, because two kinds of law were being broken in Birmingham. His initial analysis might be posed in such a stark way as to require no thought at all: ‘murderous racists should obey the law the criminalizes violence – but since I have good intentions such as ending murderous racism, I don’t have to do anything trivial like obeying a local law about parade permits.’ Natural law has much to say about condemning violence, but not much to say about parade permits. From the viewpoint of moral problems, so stated, this moral question is like adding two plus two in your head – no one needs a calculator to solve the moral issues implied in that proposition.

Dr. King, however, wished to address a more difficult question. When we get to harder questions – for example, should laws pertaining to illegal immigration be enforced, and if so, how? – the quick addition of moral rights and wrongs in one’s head doesn’t work the same way. Legal issues, and underlying ethical and spiritual issues about nations and borders and their control, and legal and illegal immigration, and the social integrity of the communities which receive immigrants, and taxation and wages and jobs and benefits affected by immigration, doesn’t seem to lend itself to a 30-second ‘good guy, bad guy’ analysis. But somehow, rules and law have to be applied to all that, too.

The ending of Revelation tells us that the nations exist, that they have an independent, God-created status, that they are enlightened by the example set by the Holy City. Tucked into the concept of any nation is the implied right to apply the ‘sword of the law’ of Romans ch. 13. Their status as ‘nations’ is a different status than the Holy City. But there those resilient nations are (albeit after the first heaven and first earth had passed away), relating in their own way to the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. The ‘nations’ – however one might understand the term and however one might interpret the passing of the first heaven and first earth – are sturdier than one might expect.

Dr. King addressed his fellow clergymen, because the concerns posed in Birmingham appear everywhere, where people seek to order their societies in accordance with law:

“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust. A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. . . . Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

Dr. Kings’ argument called the church to consider the law in that place at that time, and then compare it to eternal law – the moral law, the law of God. Discerning what the moral law is, is challenging in a world featuring a blizzard of incompatible opinions and viewpoints. What separated Dr. King’s invocation of the natural law, from merely having a political opinion about something or another, was the 340-year history which Dr. King recited. Hard facts, long history and peaceful persuasion were at the heart of his letter, and that is our model today, our example.

Eternal law is not our final destination, except the law of love (the commandments are summed up in ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself,’ Rom. 13:9). Love ‘unlaws’ itself from the ordinary use of the word ‘law’ because it will not bear the sword. But convening our resources to address and shape the law as broadly understood, acting persuasively on the many who compose the collective seven churches, is the road forward. We do not seek a ‘confessional state’ or a theocracy. All we want is a discussion club about the law, a coffee house for debate – nothing more is needed – but our discussion club, our coffee house, is eternal and grounded in a resurrected Savior.

However weak such methods may look at first, the passage of time will disclose their strength. At some point, possibly our discussions will be like Dr. King’s, candidly announcing why we honor one law by refusing to abide by another. Our path to a millennial state is directed by an analysis of right law-making and right law-breaking. In obedience to Christ, we cascade upward into a better world as a result.

‘Right law-breaking’ is a dangerous term left unchecked by anything except preference and opinion. The problem with romanticizing civil disobedience is that everyone may utilize it, for every one of the blizzard of differing opinions which rain down in this world. As my father pointed out when I was a child and Dr. King and the civil rights movement were active in the south, the people and state governments who refused to end segregation were also acting in ‘civil disobedience.’

Because we worship God, we should always look for better laws, until we need none whatsoever. The seven churches affirmatively conduct this discussion, this inquiry into the law. The results, with their conflicting positions and arguments, are to be reported out so that the nations may “walk by their light.”

Dr. King does not shy away from the natural consequences of his position.

“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

Implied in his words is the thesis that the power of individual conscience gives rise to the awakening of community conscience. Just law enables us to relate to each other – we have something of importance to discuss, and out of our discussions, something to determine, to illuminate and to declare.

“Highest respect for the law” is no idle terminology – “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.” Psalm 119:1 (KJV). There is no possibility of building anything, except lawfully. “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice,” as Dr. King wrote. “And when they fail in this purpose they become dangerously structured dams . . . For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” Protest, however, takes many forms. Those people who are disposed by occupation and education to dominate the media, and to take to the streets to organize highly-visible protests, appear to have an advantage over those whose occupations, access to media outlets, education, and self-confidence do not lend themselves to such demonstrations. An election can also be a protest, where people who are often deplored may indicate they view current events differently.

Dr. King, a Christian, did not forget who he is addressing.

“I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.”

Dr. King’s words do not need correction or improvement after more than fifty years, any more than Martin Luther’s fundamental insights need correction after five hundred years – when you get a thing right, you have it right for all time. As the Psalmist prayed to God, “Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you.” Psalm 119:91.

Dr. King expressed the love that he felt for people, including those in whom he was deeply disappointed, even for the South generally. He sought to engage as a Christian brother. If one went looking for a reliable mark of the Holy Spirit, to distinguish Dr. King’s Letter from the ordinary passions of politics and opinion, such an expression of love for one’s enemies must be that mark.

“One day the South will know will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Interpretations of Dr. King’s Letter may differ. Liberals and conservatives will see different essential elements in it. All will agree that his arguments are grounded in more than the political passions of a few election cycles. As Christians, we seek to develop that consensus which will reflect and guide the “glory and honor of the nations.” The consensus has to be a consensus of conscience. In the absence of consensus, explored respectfully, what remains is politics, and there is no shortage of politics.

To borrow from a sociologist from the 1960’s, ‘the medium is the message.’ It is not merely Dr. King’s Letter, but to whom the arguments are addressed, and how such arguments are presented, that create a structure. It is not a structure of the sword of the law, but a structure arising from the conscience of the soul. The conscience of the soul is not an individual soul only, although that it certainly intended – because his letter, like Revelation, is addressed to a group. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.” Rev. 22:16.


First, a Vision

My motivation is visionary, idealistic, postmillennial Christian – not to be found in immediate conflicts or their outcomes. Along those lines, in the course of a vacation trip with Erma to Vermont, we found our way into the thrift shop section of a local church in Montpelier. I found a book for one dollar called Rays of Light from Revelation. It is written by Robert McClurkin, and shows no publisher at all. It is dedicated to the author’s wife Evelyne, to a Miss Allysen Todd, of Monogahela, Pennsylvania, who assisted in the preparation of the manuscript, and to “to all students of Prophecy who humbly approach the study of “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” with an open mind.

Mr. McClurkin was born in Ireland, according to the back cover, and came to Canada in 1930, apparently living much of his life in Galt, Ontario. In 1980, the same year I became a Christian, he was “called home to be with Christ.” His son, David McClurkin, authored the preface which provides some sparse details about the author. Robert McClurkin was not a trained theologian, simply “a man of prayer and a thorough Bible student.” Much of his short book, 140 pages, is dispensational in theology, and I filled the margins with question marks, indicating my disagreements. But when he arrived at Chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation, Mr. McClurkin’s vision is simple, direct and beautiful. The vision is our destination and our invitation – details come later. Rejoicing that our theological differences are dissolved in a mutual reverence for God’s vision, I present some portions of Mr. McClurkin’s interpretive vision here.

“No more sea. This is the first of the seven ‘no mores’ in these last two chapters: no more death, sorrow, crying, pain, curse or night. . . . In her [the Eternal City’s] millennial glory she is ‘holy,’ in contrast to the unholiness still in the earth. She is a river of testimony to the world (Rev. 22:1), has healing for the nations (Rev. 22:2), and has glory to light up the world and in whose light the nations will walk (Rev 21:24). . . . Just as the book of Exodus closes with the tabernacle being filled with His glory, and the Exodus part of the Psalms (72) closes with the whole earth being filled with His glory, so here in the center of God’s government for the universe, His glory will be seen as the visible sign of God’s presence in the midst of His people.

“The Lord’s people appear as a bride to indicate what they are to the heart of Christ. When they appear as a city, it indicates what they are to others – ‘a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.’ . . .

“Christ, as the anti-typical trespass offering, will restore to God more than was ever lost by the Fall, and additional glory will crown the blessed head of our glorious Lord. . . .

“The renewal of all things is represented, not merely as an act of God, but as an inevitable outcome of His ever-present life. In an eternal present things cannot grow old, and eternal life is not the mere perpetuation of existence but the constant renewal of the life of man by the inflowing of the life of God. . . .

“The angel with the seven last plagues is now going to show John the glory that will follow the sufferings of God’s people (v. 9). He carries John to a great and high mountain. It was a mountain from which Satan showed our Lord the kingdoms of this world. What the Devil offered Christ, apart from the Cross (an impossible thing), the Father will give Him as a result of the Cross.

“John saw a beautiful city, the picture of social and spiritual fellowship. It is, indeed, a city set upon a hill whose light cannot be hid, for this city is a light-bearer in a renewed earth. . . .

“Here we see that Life is the great characteristic of the city: we read of the Tree of Life, the Water of Life and the Light of Life. Every movement in the city portrays the new life of the saints, as abundant, abounding and abiding. It is life that has quality and is eternal as well.

“The street of the city was pure gold, as it were, transparent glass (v. 21). The street speaks of the exercises and movements of the saints. Every activity is in full harmony with divine righteousness. The Pulpit Commentary says, ‘The street was of pure gold. The street – place of concourse – the ways in which the people of the city walk, are golden. That is, they are ways of holiness, godly ways, ways of good, precious ways of pleasantness, and paths of peace. The spiritual glory, beauty and riches of this way are what is meant, and what each heart knows to be true. No social caste, national prejudices, religious sectarianism, self-interests, mutual misunderstandings. None of these will exist in this glorious fellowship. . . .

“That unity our Lord prayed for (John 17) and which He will bring to fruition is patterned after the unity of the Godhead, so that man, in the image of God, will reflect the glory of God to all the intelligences of all worlds.”

That, from Brother McClurkin, is a vision. So compelling is this vision, that we can hardly find our theological differences after we enter in, as if we were being washed clean of some unfortunate mud by an enormous gentle rainstorm that has found us and transformed us. It is for sake of that vision that we go on the road.

The Who, What, Why, When, Where and How of a Vision

1. Who have we come to meet?

Who is involved in this vision? God is involved, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whether the Biblical book of Genesis or the Gospel of John, our journey commences with “In the beginning . . .” We start from the Word who created us – the mapmaker. Jesus bequeaths a revelation to John and John communicates it to us. The Book of Revelation may be difficult or baffling. The ‘how’ of how we travel to, build and receive the Promised City may be veiled. But the first thing to know in any courtroom is who the judge is – the Lord is speaking to us, his Word is being revealed. If we have that much, we have a place to start.

John, one of the world’s nobodies, without education, the vehicle for these visions, was a young man and fisherman with his brother when he was called by Jesus. He probably had few spiritual aspirations until Jesus called him to be a disciple. John, who mended nets, heard parables, saw miracles, climbed a mountain to see the transfiguration, saw his Lord betrayed and crucified, and who met his Lord resurrected. John, servant of God, is our map reader.

John is writing to seven churches in Asia, which represent all churches everywhere – all congregations, groupings, denominations, gatherings, assemblies, societies and associations of believers who worship God through Jesus Christ. The number seven is a symbol for the entire set of churches, past, present and future. There is no limit to the scope of Jesus’ message though John – it is a form of general invitation. Revelation is addressed to the churches and so intended for men and women, for angels, for the world above and the world below, for now and for later. We join the complete set of disparate churches, spread in time and place beyond imagination, to be revealed in one destination city.

Who is involved in the Federalist Papers? The Federalist Papers were a series of essays published in 1787-1788 which appeared in the newspapers of New York. They were intended to explain and defend, and hence encourage New York’s passage of the new Constitution of the United States. There were three authors of this series of essays, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, publishing under the collective, assumed name of Publius.

Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean around 1755. He came to New York, then a British colony, and made immeasurable contributions to the American Revolution. Hamilton was deceased by reason of a duel in 1804. Although never elected President, he was a central figure in the Revolutionary War and worked closely with General Washington. He helped organize the new government of the United States and held high office in it. Hamilton was a practicing lawyer in New York, and a political and legal writer of realism and insight. He was a man of strong, sometimes unbridled passions and rivalries.

James Madison, born in Virginia in 1751, was a politician, statesman and political philosopher who became the fourth President of the United States. Although not as prolific an author as Hamilton, Madison authored some of the most important essays that comprise the Federalist Papers. Madison was instrumental in the passage of the Bill of Rights, to address objections that were made to the Constitution. Madison’s discussions of state, federal and national concepts of political organization have present-day application to methods that disparate churches and Christian groups might employ.

John Jay, born 1745 in New York, was descended from Protestant Huguenots who had fled France to escape religious persecution. He was a lawyer, founding father, patriot, and first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jay was an opponent of slavery, who helped enact a law in New York for the emancipation of slaves, where he saw slavery eliminated in New York in his lifetime. He was a Christian who served as the President of the American Bible Society. He wrote five of the 85 Articles, dealing generally with foreign influences and treaties.

The Federalist Papers were intended for the readers of New York newspapers, but their greater purpose was to engage and persuade all Americans. By virtue of a proposed Constitution, the thirteen new American states (like the seven churches of Revelation) were invited to a particular course of conduct, based on a particular set of beliefs. Neither invitation has ever been revoked. Circumstances have changed enormously, but the profound reach of each document has never been shortened.

That course of conduct – faithful endurance for the churches as proposed in the Book of Revelation – approval and enactment of the Constitution by the States, as proposed in the Federal Papers – was in each case intended to result in a higher form of organization. Now we are identified in this summons. In this act, the stage is ours.

2. What – Politics and Religion, and the languages thereof

Revelation, once forever and for all. In times of stress, John’s visions present encouragement, directive, promise, warning, prophecy, command, and invitation. The churches are to persevere when persecuted by a hostile world and a hostile political system. The problems encountered are not only external problems. Implied in Revelation is an answer from God intended to address the interior doubts of new Christians – and doubts that arise in more mature Christians also – ‘if we are worshiping the supreme God and omnipotent Ruler of all the universe, why are we being persecuted, arrested, martyred? Who’s in charge here?’

The answers, internal or external, are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Revelation pertained to the first generation of Christians – it was their book of courage. Revelation pertains to us – it is our book of vision. Revelation presents a set of symbols, requiring interpretation for us to fulfill its purposes. It is no more exhausted of meaning today, or limited in its present application by the passage of time, than the Sermon on the Mount or the 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians. The visions presented are connected symbols – they act together to convey a meaning which will progress to an end. The visions are given to us as our symbolic language, something all Christians and all churches may share and use.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, presented in Chapter 6, where the first six seals are opened, ride everywhere. The visionary symbols are intentionally supernatural. They are intended to be surreal, supernational and supertheological, so that Revelation is not limited to any particular theological outlook, doctrine, church, interpretation, nation, people, culture, place or time. One can vehemently disagree over the meaning of the symbols, and still be informed, still use them. The visionary symbols function as a code, much as a wartime code would, sent to the intended recipients; and obscure, repellant or incoherent to those for whom the book is not intended.

Visions presented in symbols create an intellectual structure, a language. If I have an interest in the Christian future, then to convey that, I will ‘speak Revelation.’ The way we perceive the world, and how we mentally organize such impressions, is conditioned by the language we employ. Even if we disagree, symbols like a Pale Horse and Rider, an earthquake in which the sun turns black and every mountain and island is removed from its place, a little scroll tasting as sweet as honey but turning the stomach sour, a series of dreadful plagues, a last battle at Armageddon, a huge mountain all ablaze falling into the sea, a Beast emerging from the Sea, a Dragon giving the Beast authority, a Woman Clothed with the Sun, a sickle reaping the earth, the winepress of the wrath of God, or numbers like 666 or the 144,000, convey layers of meaning, imagery and emotion.

The symbols illuminate a set of spiritual or gravitational forces acting on us, to make us move. But our movement and change should have a goal. Road trips have destinations. The end thereof for all who believe and will endure is a city for God’s people. The City merits a description, an overview: a place of unlimited beauty, eternal joy, many-splendored love, perfect holiness, breathtaking inspiration, sincere godliness, warm fellowship, vast expanse, spontaneous worship, a well-spring of pleasures, a forest of fountains, gardens as numerous as the stars in the sky, life in energy and renewal without end – and the immeasurable grace and close personal presence of Jesus our Savior, indwelling with the Father, joined by the Spirit, at once forever, in communion for all.

Political papers and the current state of affairs. In the Federalist Papers, Publius charges us, as citizens of a newborn country – “you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America.” The Papers are limited in scope and time – the United States in the late 1780’s and early 1790’s – thirteen states on the eastern seaboard of the country. But the authors were aware that the world was watching this new experiment in self-government.

The Papers had no obvious religious goals, although its authors derived their thought and political philosophy from concepts derived from Judeo-Christian history and culture. The end thereof was a political union of higher purpose, deeper resources and greater, more permanent goals. As the Preamble to the Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic Tranquility . . . and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution. . .” The Papers pointed the way forward, with appropriate prophecies of unhappy outcomes and results if the way forward were not taken.

The ideals of self-government enunciated therein have proved to be effective, albeit not without serious strife and civil war, for the people of the United States, for over two hundred years. Whatever the current crisis in the government of the United States today (and each ‘today’ brings forth its own current crisis), the principles advocated for within the Constitution and the Federalist Papers will prevail. They are good principles, sound working tools.

The tools so developed are part of the deposit of good will and providential giving we characterize as God’s common grace. “He makes his sun to rise on the good and on the evil, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust.” Modern medicine, just law, good political philosophy, good government – all these things we thank God for, gifts from a generous and gracious Giver, who in creating the world called it “very good.”

As Hamilton wrote, the Constitution was drafted “to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Accident and force are not the governing principles of managing anything of importance to us, including obedience to God.

3. Why do we bother? Why are we called?

Why pursue this avenue of advance? Because we drawn by the Word of God. Apart from the Word of God directing us, we are baffled and lost. We go to a city to meet the One we love. Even where we cannot perceive God directly, and God proceeds so invisibly, so imperceptibly as to avoid human detection or the grasp of our minds in connection with his purposes, we still act under the impetus of his will. We obey to arrive, and arriving will answer the question of why we journeyed. God, who wheels galaxies into place, and sees to it that a hummingbird hovers over a nearby bush for your pleasure, is well aware of our questions.

For the sake even of an unbelieving and hostile world, which views us with considerable misunderstanding at best and violent animosity at worst, we go on this journey as well. (“You love those who hate you, and hate those who love you,” Joab rebuked King David, after the death of Absalom in battle). If the holy will not reach peace by mutual self-government, how will the unholy proceed? If the churches had united to stand up to Nazism, could it have proceeded in such a systematic way? Could the terrible hatreds in Rwanda have found willing ears and hands to engage in mass murder, if churches stood up collectively to resist? A world which mocks its prophets is still better off than a world which has no prophets at all.

4. When – that persistent question which never gets quite the answer we want.

Revelation tells us the visions presented must soon take place. Jesus, as Lord, has effectuated theological, medical, legal, political, scientific, industrial, cultural, artistic, literary, agricultural, philosophical, educational, administrative and economic systems, systems of communications, knowledge and methods of travel, that did not exist two thousand years ago. We also have weapons and weapon systems and means of waging war that did not exist two thousand years ago. In light of our progress, and notwithstanding our weaponry, I reject the notion that as Christians we are supposed to reach back into the past.

Ever since Jesus gave his discourse on the Mount of Olives, and his disciples came to him privately (“tell us when this will happen and what will be the signs”), the ‘when’ question has been paramount to Christians – “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” The question is too narrow for Jesus to answer directly. As long as the question is about Israel, it misses the point. Moses came for Israel; Jesus came for the world.

When is now; when is tomorrow; when is the day after tomorrow. A movement of souls becoming progressively more organized in grace with the passage of time is an outcome ordained by God. Occasionally things look bleak and we seem disorganized and in retreat, but last week’s cable news will be gone next week. Looking at the last two thousand years of human history – such a glance makes visible the acts and power of Christ, to whom all authority has been given in this, our world.

I am postmillennial, believing we will reach a millennium before Christ physically and bodily returns, because that is his will, his command and his pleasure. The millennium first, then Christ – hence, “post.” Our obedience first, then Christ’s appearance. The millennium is a continuous movement toward God, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We will reach higher and higher levels of human peace, life, love and joy. No ceilings are decreed. The millennium is real, meant for a thousand years and meant for longer still. It is presented by John in the Book of Revelation as a promise made to us, as our predestined future ordained by God, and as symbols which we acquire intellectually. Together, rightly interpreted, acted on beginning today, such symbols enlighten a path spiritually upward under the impetus of the Holy Spirit. The Holy and Righteous God whom I worship is not worn out or tired, as He makes our lives better.

Judgment and Good Judgment. There is another important timing statement in the scriptures. “For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

When the Apostle Paul said this at Athens (Acts 17:16-34), he was using the term “judge” in the sense that we usually mean legally, forensically – a judge in a courtroom who decides and who has power to make orders and determinations. This judgment will be carried out with respect to people, individually and in groups. It pertains to all people. This use of the word ‘judgment’ implies a decision at one point of time. When a forensic decision is made by that judge who sits in the highest court, it comes at the end of the case and is not revisited. Setting a day is decisive and final.

But there is also another meaning of the word ‘judge’ which denotes the use of intelligence, study and discretion, to make continuing wise choices among alternatives, as in ‘I judged those investments to be not yet ready for sale’ or ‘use good judgment about your relationship with so-and-so.’ This kind of judgment is on-going; it pertains to all the events, for example, that are connected with evaluating a set of investments, or a relationship. There is no discrete end in time to this type of good judgment.

Both uses of the term ‘judgment’ are valuable. We are disciples of Christ on a spiritual journey with him, and we should use good judgment on this day, the day God has set for judgment. We employ judgment of the second, on-going type. Even if we exercise our judgment in a state of partial knowledge, its exercise is a mark of the Holy Spirit. The interactions of Christians, whether as churches or similar groupings or as individuals, including the interpretation of the Book of Revelation or any other portion of the Bible, is founded upon the application of good judgment. The only way to get anywhere is to employ good judgment in evaluating and taking the next step. The day when we move forward, when we employ good judgment through Christ to pick out a path, must also “soon take place.” This is the day.

5. Is ‘where’ a question of geography?

Where would all this happen? We can have discussions anywhere. The United States is a candidate, where churches may gather, may send delegates, representatives and observers, for communication and organization. Christians may assemble for joint statements and to present common purposes and positions. The National Association of Evangelicals is an example. The principles underlying the political philosophy of mutual self-government, appearing in the Federalist Papers in a developed form, are applicable everywhere. Christians in many countries have well-developed ideas of self-government. God’s kingdom advances on any continent.

‘Where’ has an interior dimension as well. Prayer, conscience, reflection, study, thoughts which are “now accusing, now even defending” are part of an interior life which moves the exterior life. “The Kingdom of God is within you” said Jesus. The ‘where’ of the interior life has to meet at some point with the ‘where’ of other people, who themselves have interior spiritual lives. “The Kingdom of God is among you” is another way to translate Luke 17:21. The ‘where’ is both where we pray in private and where we present in public.

6. ‘How’ – The immediate next step is always the most obscure, and the only decision with which we are really confronted.

How is this to happen? Those who enter the Holy City of Revelation depicted in ch. 21 and 22 wield no sword; the blessed who enter pay no taxes. God has invested within us his Holy Spirit. We are powerfully moved to join together to be “one body with many members.” Every mutual communication, every connection of Christians moves the ball forward. Thinking about how we want the ordinary domestic law of the United States structured, as the Christian witness advances, is another place to start.

Revelation does not paint an entirely smooth path. I resist the translation of “the Great Tribulation” (relied upon by dispensationalists as a distinct one-time-only event) and rather think it means “great tribulation” (applicable to every generation). But that word ‘tribulation’ gets in there one way or another. The reader cannot get from Ch. 1 of Revelation to Ch. 21 without passing through Chapter 13, with the dragon, the beast from the sea, and a beast coming from the earth.

I like Christians’ theological statements, such as the Nashville Statement. Even those who differ with it are compelled then to present an argument, and the evaluation of the merits of differing arguments is progress – even where the short term outcome is division. I am encouraged by every conference, every gathering, every website, every debate, every discussion.

I’m a lawyer, and my contributions are most likely to be in my area of professional competence. Later I will have some commentary to present on the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC. I intend some commentary on the specifics of the Federalist Papers. But all things interconnect – the disturbing problems that arose and are described in, for example, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, were provisionally solved by the methods recommended by John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. Where theology could not work to resolve differences at least enough to end bloodshed, politics did. But only provisionally, as a starting point, not an ending.

We move beyond ‘error has no rights’ – which is rightly rejected, as well as ‘you do your thing, and I’ll do mine’ – which is also rightly rejected. No one should be compelled to surrender their theological distinctives. Discussion, dialogue, common positions or plans, differences, debate and controversy, argument and decision, even divisions, grow our faith and our society. Contemporary law recognizes that people disagree and often there is nothing wrong with that. Disagreement may be essential. Resolving those differences sufficiently to carry out our duties of love and obedience toward God is the work of contemporary law, meaning law in the broadest sense of the word – law which compels with a cudgel as well as law which compels by conscience.

We should not resist God. He is moving us toward a destination. Our city may be noisy, but it will be vibrant. The Holy One of Israel did not disclose himself to Moses from a burning bush in the desert in order to tell him to wait, but rather, to tell him to act.


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