If I Die On Mars

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I stumbled across an article this week profiling the first people to travel to Mars. It hasn’t happened yet, of course. But a non-profit organization is currently screening applicants to be part of a four-person expedition to colonize the red planet. The plan is to depart within ten years.

The article interviewed a handful of the 6,600 person applicant pool, whittled down from it’s original 220,000. Among the myriad of intimidating aspects of this trip, all applicants have pursued the opportunity knowing that going would mean never returning. The article discusses this in general terms. But it quickly narrows the questions to matters of much greater importance: “Does it bother you that you’ll never again be able to have sex?”

A couple weeks ago I took a day to do some alpine hiking up in the mountains with a friend. It was bitterly cold; one of those days when you open the car door to get out only to slam it shut again with a: “’d-hell was I thinking?” When I’d rallied the determination to exit the car, I allowed for a day of renewing- albeit, cold- adventures. If I had a young son- perhaps four or five years of age- I’d tell him that there’s a lesson in that.

Towards the end of the day we broke off from the beaten trail to explore. We pushed through waste deep snow drifts and finally found ourselves standing on the edge of a frozen lake. Giant rifts in the ice swerved under our feet. The wind whipped into our faces. Looking up, I could see the mountain we’d just climbed, like a hand waving to the planets and stars which the coming nightfall would remind us were there. Mars being one of them.

My lips began to freeze. But I didn’t mind. Everything was cold and terribly beautiful.

At my bedside is a magazine open to another article. It concerns research on the affect of psychedelic drugs on end of life anxiety. Doctors have been administering calculated doses of psilocybin-the active ingredient in magic mushrooms- to terminally ill volunteers. As it stands, drugs such as LSD have been proven beneficial to people nearing the end of life. One researcher explained the endeavor, saying it allows patients to ‘transcend their primary (bodily) identification’ entering into ‘ego-free states.’ The experiences commonly result in profound acceptance of one’s fate.

I can hear Plato saying “I told you so!” from this side of the common era.

I’ve not got a terminal illness. Though, I suppose it’s safe to say that we’ve all been diagnosed, in some way or another. Inevitability is the elephant in the room called mortality. But, for now, it’s an elephant I can ignore.

All of this is to say that I know someday- perhaps sooner than I think- I won’t be able to ignore the elephant. Someday, he may stomp his foot and wake me from my sleep. Or perhaps fart and- humorlessly, unless I want it to be- tune me in to the poignant reality of reality. And even though I’m young, I can’t help but think about how bad it will smell.

Would it smell better or worse on Mars?

But lately, when I think of this, I think of standing on the frozen lake. And I think of how it felt to feel so cold and so alone. In its small, passive yet bitter way, it reminded me of all the wonder in the world. Wanderlust un-damned can lead to stupidity. But with a little bit of grace, I’m beginning to find that it carries one to rushing rivers of wonder. Wonder that overflows from the cup in our fragile hands. Wonder that will eventually drown us all.

And I found that wonder on the frozen lake, it’s cracks running beneath me like primordial tales I will never read. The cracks run into one another, merging, becoming one and moving apart again- like Adam and Eve, man and wife. Unless it’s on Mars.

I found the frozen world making love to its breaking apart and I wanted to hold this wonder, keep it, move into it, with it. But it was too cold. Still, I knew then what I hope I know when that bloody elephant finally gets my attention. And if I have a prayer for the four souls shipping off to the red planet, or the fading sixty-year-old embarking on his first and final trip, then this is it:

It is possible to feel cold and small and all alone and still know that the world is beautiful. ‘Thy kingdom come’ after all. And when you feel it, I hope you’ll pull your finger from the dam. And enjoy the ride.

I can’t think of a better thing to hope for them.

Except, perhaps, that the damned elephant would stop farting.

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“Where Do Dead Babies Go?”- An Alternative View

I want to start this off by making a couple disclaimers. The first being I am not a theological expert. While it does not take an expert theologian to point out pastoral discrepancies anymore than it takes a lawyer to identify injustice- I think it ought to be noted. What follows, therefore, is my opinion which I humbly- but confidently- assert. I want this opinion heard because I believe that fellow Christians, atheists, parents and hurting mothers, fathers and families alike all need to be informed to the persisting reality of a differing point of view.

Furthermore I want to pay due respect to the author of the article I will be countering, a certain Dr. Stephen Kim. I want to respect and love him as a brother in Christ. Dr. Kim has a great amount of education- to that I must give a tip of the hat. It is further necessary to point out that Dr. Kim is not alone in his beliefs; there are other Christians who believe similar to him regarding this issue. While my objection to his beliefs has a lot to do with the callous nature in which they were presented, I also want to be clear that there is ample reason to disagree with him entirely. Thus while attempting to pay necessary respect to Dr. Kim’s assertions as well as his identity as a Christian brother, I want to be clear that I believe his views are profoundly hurtful, not just to fellow believers, but to the true gospel message.

The article which I hope to refute is titled “Where Do Dead Babies Go.” I encourage anyone reading this to read the article first, as it will give you a chance assess Dr. Kim’s side of the argument without my inevitable bias. Within this article, Dr. Kim presents the basis for his belief that:

“…based on the biblical evidence, it would seem that babies who die in infancy are not deemed elect and therefore, go to hell.”

I have not personally experienced the pain of miscarriage or still-birth, let alone the horror of something like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). But when I read such a callous and insensitive presentation of this theological position as Dr. Kim presents (nowhere in the article does he express concern, sympathy or love towards grievous readers), my heart cannot help but break for the 15% of women under the age of 35 who will experience a miscarriage next year, let alone the 35% of miscarriages that occur when the mother is over 35. When I read Dr. Kim’s flippant proclamation, I want to weep for any family members of the 2,000 infants who died from SIDS last year alone that might stumble upon Kim’s article and have to deal with such insensitivity. All of this is to say nothing of the families of an estimated 3.1 million children who die of malnutrition each year. If you are reading this and you have experienced any of these, or know someone who has, I first of all want to tell you how sorry I am for the pain you have endured. That pain is real, it hurts, and it ought to be acknowledged if any legitimate discussion on this topic is to take place.

With that said, I want to now present three glaring issues with Dr. Kim’s article with which I will show the lack of theological coherence and truth in Dr. Kim’s assertion that upon death an infant is damned to hell. My points of refutation are as follows:

1. Dr. Kim utilizes faulty logic to make his argument.  

Dr. Kim states that miscarriages cause immense grief in the Old Testament because death is “the end-all-be-all for babies” (i.e. they are now damned). In support of this, Dr. Kim cites passages like Hosea 9:14-15 and Exodus 23:25-26 stating that the grievous nature of miscarriage in these passages make a lot more sense because the babies have been damned.

This is horrifically and insensitively absurd. Following the logic of this statement, one shouldn’t mourn a Christian who passes away because they’re in heaven now- there’s obviously no reason for pain- the only reason deep mourning might occur is because of the passing of a damned soul.

The contrary reality is that miscarriage is not only mourned in the Old Testament- or today for that matter- because of the child’s imminent damnation, it is mourned because it hurts. Death hurts. This is the tragic reality behind the Christian message which is then coupled with the good news that Christ conquered death. Despite Christ’s conquering death, mourning is encouraged in the Bible (“blessed are those who mourn”). Mourning is encouraged because immense grief provides room for immense hope; only when a Christian experiences and understands the power and grip of death can they truly understand the goodness of Christ’s defeating death. “Death where is thy sting?” is a beautiful taunt of that which has the power over all of us but Christ has defeated!

In continued arrangement of an illogical case, Dr. Kim states that infant baptism is “nonsensical” and cannot atone for one’s sins. In support of this he states that infant baptism was “never ever found in the New Testament”. First of all, this in and of itself is not entirely true- or at the very least it is terribly ignorant of what is a long standing debate. For instance: in Acts 16 Lydia was converted by Paul’s teaching and was baptized “with her household”. Lydia’s household including young children- so it would seem that they too were baptized.

I am not attempting to support infant baptism. I’m simply making the case that Dr. Kim ought to at least acknowledge that a debate on this topic exists- certainly before using it to draw such imminent conclusions.

Even if what Dr. Kim says is true- that there is no instance of infants being baptized in the New Testament- it still ought to be noted that an argument for something based on the absence of any contrary evidence (or an argument from silence) is a logical fallacy. Otherwise, I could say numerous things aren’t Biblical ( rock music, eating processed food, altar calls, soccer and America) because they aren’t found in the New Testament. For us to believe, therefore, that his argument holds any water, we have to believe that this is because he is basing it on something other than Scripture.

To this end Dr. Kim notes that baptizing of infants “isn’t even found in the first 3 centuries of Christianity.” This is utterly false. Irenaus, Hippolytus and Origen all testified the legitimacy of the practice. For instance:

“I take this occasion to discuss something which our brothers often inquire about. Infants are baptized for the remission of sins.” Origen, Homily on Luke 14:5

Again, the point to my bringing this to light is not to necessarily support the idea of infant baptism. I am simply trying to make it clear that to so strongly and adamantly refute the idea of infant baptism as the springboard for claims regarding eternal destiny of children isn’t possible unless you at least give some tip of the hat to opposing viewpoints.

But Dr. Kim doesn’t even acknowledge the potential for fallacy in his logic, let alone give them enough credence to make us believe his use of Scripture might be anything other than systematic regurgitation of a denominational agenda.

Instead Dr. Kim builds his argument on misappropriated use of Scripture and shows blatant disregard for historical claims. In short: the logic of his argument is terribly questionable.

2. Dr. Kim presents a misunderstanding of the means of salvation.

In one of his comments defending his argument, Dr. Kim refutes the assertion that under his logic anyone who lived before Jesus must be condemned to hell as well. To this Dr. Kim said: “Old Testament believers were saved by faith in the gospel as well” supporting his claim with a decontextualized Bible verse. Dr. Kim also uses this idea of salvation by one’s faith as his foundation for believer’s baptism; believers are baptized and saved- Kim states- because they have faith in God. Such notions are completely unbiblical and reflect a poor reading of reformational theology at that.

Christians are not saved by faith in the gospel, we are saved by the grace of God. What I mean is that it is not our action of believing but God’s action of grace to humans that brings us into salvation. It doesn’t matter how little faith I have, as long as I have some faith, God’s grace can save me (as in “the faith of a mustard seed”). I am not saved, therefore, by how hard I close my eyes, clench my fists and “have faith” ( a vague notion at best), I am saved by God’s grace on me. Faith is simply an acknowledgement of his grace. It is the proclamation that though a sinner -wonder of wonders!-I am saved.

Likewise, believers in the Old Testament are not saved by their faith, they are saved by God’s grace. Noah was selected by God and found favor in his eyes; Abraham believed the grace God had already displayed in God’s choosing him and thus it was credited to him as righteousness; throughout the Old Testament a consistent pattern is witnessed: God acts, humans acknowledge his act. That is faith.

Salvation occurs, therefore, when the individual is brought into the grace of God. Faith does not save us- grace does. Meaning it is not our action in having faith, but God’s provision of grace, that saves us. Faith is merely the acknowledgement of that which God has already done.

This may sound like a nit-picky objection. But the point is that an infant who dies in childbirth, the womb, in childhood, etc. can absolutely be saved by the grace of God. The child’s fate does not rest in any of their own doing- much like the fate of anyone who has ever lived doesn’t control their own fate. Adults can acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, acknowledge the grace of God which has the power to save us, but our acknowledgement does not prompt God. Such theology is backwards.

The idea that a child is damned because he or she never made the conscientious acknowledgement of Christ is simply void.

3. Dr. Kim presents a callous and hurtful misrepresentation of Christianity. 

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4

While this objection stems mostly in Dr. Kim’s presentation of his beliefs, it is also an objection to the beliefs themselves. The message of Christianity is one of hope to the hopeless, comfort to those who mourn and reconciliation of all creation to God their creator. Heaven will be, as Tolkien poetically put it, somewhere where all that is sad will be untrue. The daily task of a Christian, particularly as a minister, is to exhibit, proclaim and testify to the reality of this good news which has come in Christ, is present today in the Spirit and the Church, and will be in the age to come with the ushering of God’s perfect rule over everything.

It is deplorable that Dr. Kim took this message of blessed news and callously presented it as a message of terror to those who need hope. Statistically speaking, it is highly likely that most of the people who read this post have experienced the loss of an infant, whether directly as a parent, or as a brother, sister or family member. Despite the handling of a terribly painful topic, Dr. Kim unapologetically lobs a grenade of (erroneous) theology into the grief of those who accessed the article (do you really think anyone Googling: “Where did my baby go when it died?’ is having a good day?).

Such handling of this topic is abrasive and empathetically bankrupt, akin to telling a depressed person “either get over it or just do away with yourself” or an abused spouse “maybe it’s because you’re sexually unappealing.” Though I am a Christian, I find myself relating to an atheist commentator on the article who said “If I weren’t already an atheist this post would have pushed me over the edge.”

Contrary to this, I hope readers will hear and know the following truth: the Christian gospel is not a story of exclusivity, of God saying ‘here’s a list of who gets into heaven- if you’re not on it then that sucks for you.” Rather Christ asked all those who were weary to come to him, particularly the helpless infants and widows. He promised that if we only knock, only ask, then our cries will be heard- that the plights of children do not escape his ears.

If you have experienced the loss of a child, I pray and hope that you will know that the Biblical narrative testifies to the reality of your pain. It speaks to the horror and ache of miscarriages, SIDs, starvation and freak accidents. And the message it speaks into this pain is one of hope, not judgement. God does not delight in the death of children. Rather, his grace surrounds and protects, especially the least of these.

I hope and pray that people who read Dr. Kim’s blog come to know and understand that Christianity does not testify to a God who flippantly damns children to hell. Though God’s ways are mysterious, though we cannot understand the pain of this life, rest assured that God’s love can and does reach into the depth of our despair and catch the weak and helpless when they fall. This is the Biblical testimony: that God weeps with those who weep and mourns with those who mourn and that his grace can cover the taint of Adamic sin, even in the womb.

I hope that everyone who comes to the point of grieving a lost child can be comforted with the hope of the gospel. Contrary to Dr. Kim’s portrayal, God’s grace is present in our deepest human pain. And his grace gives us hope, hope that uplifts, enables and reminds us that love has defeated death and gathered us all into his arms.

“But Jesus called the children to him and said ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’

 Luke 18:16

 

 

A Mild Revolution

There’s a small bird that’s taken up residence beneath our apartment’s open window. I became aware of its existence slowly, the way one becomes aware of the sun setting. I was sitting at my desk and heard it chirping, not even a few feet away from me. The sound didn’t register at first though. But then something like annoyance started to creep into my head, as the noise distracted me from my thoughts. I finally looked up and went to close the window, almost angrily. But then I saw it’s tiny body, a red head flowing into brown wings. It looked back for a moment, but then turned and with a chirp was gone. So I kept the window open, waiting to hear it again.

I had been thinking about death, a random and grotesque admission but I’d cooked dinner that night so it warranted contemplation. Of all the worlds’ wonders, Annie Dillard writes, quoting the Mahabharata, the most wonderful is how no mane believes that he himself will die. But I try to believe it, to embrace the wonder of my own mortality. But then I am angry to be distracted by life, even as it greets me with cheer.

Sometimes it is hard for me, as I imagine it is with most people, to feel like anything more than a traveler in this world, a lone figure with a briefcase waiting for a train to arrive and carry me to the next life. Others will come and stand by me for periods of time, my friends, family, and wife. But one by one, at separate moments, they too will depart. And if the scene flashes forward 30, 40 maybe even 70 years it will show me, standing alone, patiently awaiting my departure. And that is when I ask myself: What do I now bring? What do I have to show for my efforts?

For some time in my youth, I wanted to be a soldier. I read of wars afar, tales of heroes conquering villains and believed that the pull of a trigger would bring finality to some sort of accomplishment I might call my own. Today I sit down by my window and I put my fingers to another task of self-deception; I will never change anything. Not, at least, anything that wouldn’t have been changed without me.

An artist steps back from his painting and declares, “I have created something beautiful.” But a tree was destroyed to make his canvas, and in the springtime the forest is denied the beauty of its blossoms.

Unless the Lord builds the house, the Jewish poet stated, the builders build in vain. My finger strikes the key and I cannot listen above the clicking of my own efforts.

The highlight of my recent days has been in the early hours. I awaken before my wife and go sit on the couch in our family room, the overstuffed one we found cheap online. I posture myself against the armrest, in a position of just enough discomfort so as not to fall back asleep. Then I read my Bible for a little while but mostly I just sit. I don’t even pray. I just sit.

This is the most productive part of my day, when I rest in the presence of eternal beauty.

“I want a revolution now,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal. Then she qualified: “a mild revolution.”

I want a revolution, too, sincerely and desperately with every ounce of my being. I want something for my briefcase as I pace about the train station, something beyond a pass to the next stop. I want to hear the simplicity of a bird chirping on my windowsill and know that this too shall pass into something marvelous something worthy of seeing. I want to know that wonder.

“Wherever you turn your eyes,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “the world can shine like transfiguration.”

And so I try, I turn my head from the task at hand and I announce it to the world: can you not see that I’m trying? But the answer comes in the stillness of an early morning that the revolution has happened; it took place while I was asleep. It is finished. I need not try but accept; accept the wonder with stillness and a grateful heart.

For only when wonder has worked its way on the human heart is it capable of surviving the diseases of apathy and narcissism to which it is prone.

To good news, of course, is that the train is running on schedule. And when it arrives, at just the right time, I will pick up my briefcase and board. Once there I will sit with my briefcase on my lap quietly; I hope to find a window.

For then, of all times, I am certain: there will be much to see.