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The Best of J. Ellsworth Kalas
Telling the Greatest Story Ever Told Like It's Never Been Told Before
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
All of us know that something malevolent is loose in our world. And it's been this way for a long time. How long? Well, if it's murder we're talking about, the Bible would take us all the way back to the first family, where murder came to birth between siblings Cain and Abel. And if it's white-collar crime, you can go back almost as far to another family scene, where a younger brother, Jacob, swindled his older twin, Esau.
But when we look for the perpetrator, we slowly realize that the story is older than either of these crime scenes. Cain and Jacob are really pretty small potatoes. There's somebody more involved, because this is a much bigger deal than a murder here or a fraud there. There's something twisted right at the heart of things. All of us know it, and from as far back as we can imagine, the human race has known it and has sought a name for it. We know there's some master perpetrator, some evil genius at work beyond our imagining, a mind so conscientiously evil that we see evidences of his activity everywhere, in every part of the world, in every culture, and without regard for race, sex, age, or color.
We have a name for him—several names, in fact. Satan. The devil. The serpent. Lucifer. Beelzebub. Belial. In more recent times, Mephistopheles. And, of course, nicknames have developed too, because anybody as familiar as this character is tagged with names that make him more manageable, like Old Nick or Old Scratch. Which is to say, if we were to post a villain's description in a plan for apprehending, we'd have a long list of aliases. And of course I've stuck pretty much to the language of the biblical world and the Western world, and haven't even approached the names you'd find in some cultures of Africa, South America, Asia, or the islands of the sea. I suspect, however, that we'd find appropriate names in all of those places, with definitions basically not too different from our own.
As I see it the most descriptive name is the basic biblical term—the adversary. That is, the ultimate perpetrator; the one who really has it in for us; the one who wants most to discomfit, disrupt, disassemble, and destroy us. The adversary. The one so much against us that when passing adversaries appear on the scene, even so transient and unimportant as the person who crowds ahead of us in the checkout line, we figure the devil has had something to do with it. That's why we laughed so readily a generation ago when a comedian developed a character who always excused her conduct by saying, "The devil made me do it." The comedian made us feel better about the little acts of nastiness that seem to mark most of our lives at one time or another: we can say that somebody gave us a push. The language gives an almost cozy, playful quality to the villain.
And "villain" is of course the right description. The human story is so ideal, almost impossibly so, until this villain appears. The man and the woman—let's call them Adam and Eve—are so happy that the man says, "At last! This is what I've been waiting for: bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23, paraphrased). They're both naked, but they're so comfortable with themselves, with each other, and with their total environment (we call it Eden: paradise) that there's no shame. Shame is something you feel only if you're uncomfortable for some reason or other, and there was nothing here to destroy comfort.
But then came the villain. He didn't look it. But the writer tells us, flat out, that he is "more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made" (Genesis 3:1). He's so crafty, in fact, that—well, you've heard the old line about the salesman who could sell refrigerators to people in the Arctic? This character moved into perfection and convinced the man and the woman that he had something that would improve on perfection—something heretofore lacking, so that the persuasive villain's offer would put all other wonders in the shade. He put up one small minus sign that made all the pluses of paradise seem a deficit.
The writer of Genesis doesn't give this villain a name. The writer simply refers to him as "the serpent." But when we get to the end of the story—or perhaps I should say, to the beginning of the endless-end of the story—the writer of Revelation picks up the same name. He calls this villain "the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan" (Revelation 20:2, italics added).
* * *
"Born with a rusty spoon." The most surprising thing to me about that phrase is that I've heard it only once. When I think of the number of people who have a right to say it, and those who express the same philosophy at greater length and with less eloquence, I'm surprised that this phrase hasn't become the possession of a whole subsection of our culture.
I got the phrase secondhand from a man who worked with my wife some years ago. It was one of those Monday morning conversations, when workers are sipping coffee and inquiring about the weekend just past. When someone asked if the others had had a good night's sleep, one man answered, "I never get a good night's sleep. I was born with a rusty spoon in my mouth."
As my wife, Janet, reports it, the statement wasn't bitter. The speaker was a pleasant man, not given to pessimism or complaint. He was making a summary of life as he had experienced it. The "rusty spoon" said it all.
When I heard the story, I said to myself, Now, there's someone who knows his theology. Of course, he's right—not just for himself, but for the whole human race. Mind you, the analysis is more pronounced and obvious in some cases, sometimes even to the level of consummate tragedy. But the man who said it, whether he knew it or not, was doing nothing other than putting the Christian doctrine of original sin in graphic, down-to-earth language. All of us were born with a rusty spoon. As for those to whom we sometimes enviously refer as having been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, if you'll look more carefully at their equipment, you'll find the silver is well tarnished. And you don't have to be a theologian to see it; a rudimentary knowledge of psychology will do. We don't start life with a spoon of our own making or choosing; it's been passed to us by other generations.
The classic doctrine of original sin says that when Adam and Eve sinned, they brought a curse upon the whole human race. In other words, they bequeathed to us a rusty spoon. Our Puritan ancestors taught this doctrine to their children as part of the alphabet. Since the issue is so basic, they were pretty pragmatic in doing so, especially since "A is for Adam": "In Adam's Fall, / We sinned all."
And that's the way it is. We know this not because we've read the doctrine but because we're human beings who have experienced it. We live every day with its reality.
Please understand me. I'm not speaking simply of our conduct. That's sometimes convincing enough when we find ourselves doing and saying things that we insist are inconsistent with our self-image. "I can't believe I did such a thing," we sometimes say as we review some irrational or unseemly act. Well, maybe it's an old family trait. Maybe it's something we learned from Adam and Eve.
But I repeat, I'm not speaking simply of our conduct. I'm thinking of all the other evidences that we are born into a world where sin was here before we were. Ponder our human scene. You didn't ask for a world where there's poverty, disease, and war; they were here waiting for you when you came. We inherited them. Let me hasten to add that we also didn't ask for a world where there are such things as the music of Bach, the writing of Shakespeare, and the art of Michelangelo; these, too, were waiting when we came. But in truth, all of us are born into a world where sin (as well as beauty) has a head start on us. It's a world where we are exposed early to pain, hatred, thoughtlessness, and irritability so that these unpleasant realities can easily become factors in our own personalities before we realize it. And this is true even before we get into the embarrassing business of those inclinations and traits that our families tell us we got from some relative who we wish hadn't contributed to our genetic line.
Some theologian a generation ago said that every human being is born with a pack on his or her back. That is, we come into this world with an accumulation from previous generations. We are likely to take the good for granted; our worst sin in that respect is that we don't use our good inheritance more effectively. But our problem, of course, is coping with the bad. What do we do with the pack on our back? How do we handle the rusty spoon?
* * *
I pause at Jesus' story of a farmer who is sowing seed. Some of the seed (which, Jesus explains, represents the word of the kingdom) falls on the pathway, and almost immediately "the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart" (Matthew 13:19). This is the primary business of "the evil one," to prevent us humans from accepting the redeeming message. Since he is the "father of lies," nothing disturbs him more than the prospect of our getting the truth. Most of us recognize the Adversary best when he comes in the form of disaster or trouble or pain. But for our Adversary, these are only means to an end. The goal of the Adversary is to keep us from truth. Because, of course, the ultimate goal of our enemy is to keep us. The truth will set us free. We must therefore, by all means, be kept from the truth.
Three of the Gospels tell us of Jesus' particular encounter with the Adversary, and Luke—whose report is the longest—concludes by saying that the devil "departed from him until an opportune time" (Luke 4:13). As I read the gospel stories about Jesus, I suspect that there were "opportune times" without end. In my mind, the most instructive element in this story is in the very fact that the Adversary dared to approach Jesus, and did so repeatedly. Here we have a measure of the arrogance of our enemy and of his unceasing ambition. Having lost his place in the heavenlies because of his prideful rebellion (as Isaiah and his interpreters tell the story) but having then succeeded in ruining Eden and setting up a beachhead on all human souls, the Adversary obviously saw no reason he could not also seduce God's Son, now that the Son was made vulnerable by inhabiting human flesh.
If the Adversary is so arrogant as to approach Jesus, we shouldn't be surprised that he constantly harasses us. After all, each time the Adversary wins some measure of victory in your life or mine, he has mocked the sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary. I suspect that the greatest saints are those persons who are most sensitive to the fact that they have an enemy and that they have the power from Christ to cope with that enemy. But they have also learned that they need help in dealing with this Adversary.
This is a sharply abbreviated biography. There's so much more that could be written. The documents from any given day on our planet would pack solid the average county courthouse. The Adversary's crimes range all the way from murder and betrayal and incest and child abuse—the evils that we most easily abhor—to ennui (such a subtle foe!) and normal greed ("I've got my rights," we say) and arrogance and unseemly pride. And of course we have to remember that all of us find it nearly impossible to tell the difference between seemly and unseemly pride. That's why the great Augustine—who knew a good deal by experience about sin—insisted that "pride is the beginning of all sin."
I should tell you that this Ultimate Perpetrator will eventually be apprehended. Justice will be done. The report was so real to the writer of Revelation that he tells it as something already done: "the devil" (John notes again that he is a deceiver) is "thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10). Incidentally, I'm glad that the book of Revelation ends not on this graphic note of destruction but with a description of the beauties of the new heaven and the new earth, and God's invitation to "everyone who is thirsty" to come (Revelation 22:17).
One of the aims of our criminal system is to get the repeat offender off the streets, to protect the larger population. So what hope does our planet have regarding this age-long enemy? Let's face it: this Adversary is helpless without our cooperation. He struts and swaggers and smiles condescendingly on our struggling race, but he's really quite helpless except as we help him. Until our Lord gives the final victory, the best thing you and I can do is get this offender off the streets of our own souls. If enough of us would do so, we'd be surprised at what a difference it would make on our whole planet.
* * *
The book of Psalms is probably the most-loved book in the Bible. This is true for many reasons, but I suspect that the major appeal for vast numbers of people is that the writers of the Psalms were people who knew something about trouble. Sometimes they were deep in trouble even as they wrote, so deep that you can almost feel the muck of their quicksand pulling you down. In other instances they write in triumph, grateful to God for having been delivered from trouble. "Misery loves company" is surely one of the most popular proverbs in the English language. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations identifies it as coming from the sixteenth century, but of course that only refers to the first record of its being in print. I suspect the human race was very young when someone first discovered this truth about trouble, that one feels better for finding a fellow sufferer. Well, the book of Psalms has many such fellow sufferers, and one who had found a remedy told his story in a succinct sentence: "When I was in trouble, I called to the LORD, / and he answered me" (Psalm 120:1). That's the way the Good News Translation puts it. The King James Version finds a stronger word for trouble: "In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me."
The person who wrote Psalm 120 seemed especially to have people trouble. That's one of the worst kinds of trouble because it's so hard to escape it. People are everywhere, and while there may be times in many of our lives when we'd like to retreat to a desert island for a while, most of us want to see people at least once in a while, and some of us want to see them a great deal. If people become a source of trouble, the structures of daily life hang in the balance.
* * *
So listen to this ancient soul in trouble:
Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war. (120:5-7)
I wonder if perhaps the psalmist was speaking figuratively. Might he have been talking about people in his own neighborhood, perhaps his own synagogue, who seemed to him to be so difficult that he chose to describe them as the kind of ethnic group known for their unpleasant ways? Or was he engaged in a time of self-pity? Was he saying, "I try to get along with folks, but they just don't give me a chance."
Well, the issue is not whether the fault is in the people with whom we associate or whether it is lodged within our own temperament; it's still trouble, whether someone causes it for me or whether I make the trouble for myself. Some observers of the human scene feel that trouble with people is the worst trouble of all. We can endure sickness, financial distress, even failure if only there are friends who will stand by, people who will understand and empathize. But when people are cold, indifferent, or antagonistic, life can be nearly impossible to manage. And it isn't just our friends or family members who can touch the hot switch in our lives. Sometimes a clerk in a store can do it or the driver in a passing automobile. People trouble is very big trouble, and probably all of us are susceptible to it.
But another question still asserts itself. If I cry to the Lord when I'm in trouble, what will he do? The ancient poet gave the simplest yet greatest of answers: and he answered me.
I like that. When I'm in trouble, I don't care to hear all the whereases, maybes, and in-case-ofs. I want only to know that there's someone in this blessed universe who can hear, who cares, and who is disposed to answer. I don't want to be put on hold while music not of my choosing is played, nor to hear that the supply is exhausted, that I must get my application approved by an assistant investigator, or that my form is filled out incorrectly. When I'm in trouble, I need an answer.
The psalmist never really tells us what the answer was. I expect he considered any such statement superfluous. If you know the nature of God and God's unlimited capacity and power, you don't need to know how or what was the answer. Details, mere details!
Over the years I have thought often of another song composed by someone in trouble. Whether a man or a woman, no one knows. It is part of the great tradition of spirituals that has come to us out of the world of slavery and in some instances of the troubles that followed slavery. Listen:
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen,
Nobody knows my sorrow;
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen,
Excerpted from The Best of J. Ellsworth Kalas by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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