Is your allegiance in Christ?

An intriguing new argument made by Bible scholar Matthew Bates in his book, “Salvation by Allegiance Alone,” states that the word “faith” in the New Testament, especially the epistles of Paul, could be translated more accurately as “allegiance” in many cases. (I have not yet read the entire book, only the introduction.)  He argues that when we are being asked to have faith in Christ, the meaning is more closely aligned with the concept of fidelity, as in swearing loyalty or fidelity to a king. Given the Pauline letters’ emphasis on the kingship of Christ, this makes sense, and it provides an intriguing new way of thinking about our relationship with Christ.

The concept of allegiance suggests a more devoted kind of discipleship than mere belief or mental assent that Christ is Saviour. When we pledge our allegiance to someone or something, we declare what side we are on, who we are working for. We declare our loyalty, our flag, our colors. We become, in the truest sense of the word, disciples. The root of the word disciple is the same as that of the word discipline. In declaring our allegiance to Christ, we submit to his discipline, or in other words, the devotional life he, as King, requires of his subjects.

This declaration of allegiance has saving power. In an earthly kingdom, declaring allegiance to a king makes one a citizen and a subject. Period. A life of discipleship (think, devoted citizenship) must follow, but the individual has declared to whom they belong. It doesn’t matter whether the loyal subject is a peasant or a wealthy landowner. The protection of the King is guaranteed. Similarly, when we declare our allegiance to Christ, he becomes our Saviour and Protector as we become His disciple-subjects, regardless of our relative weaknesses and strengths at the time. But if we are serious about our allegiance to the King, we will eventually become good subjects.

Loyalty oaths and pledges of allegiance can be dangerous when it is mere human beings asking for them. Often, when a person demands loyalty and allegiance, they are up to no good and are trying to manipulate someone. But in declaring our loyalty and allegiance to Christ, we are making the safest and wisest pledge we can, and are yoking ourselves to the only Master who truly has the power to guide us to eternal life.

Sometimes using the same language gets us in a rut. When we use the same word over and over again, often for our entire lives, it can lose meaning. It becomes background noise. Suggesting alternative translations, if not completely changing meaning, can at least offer new perspectives of what seems like a familiar term: faith. So, fellow-citizens, keep the faith…or… keep your allegiance in Christ, our King.

Sheldon Lawrence is the founder of bibledice.com, an award winning essayist, and author of the recent afterlife novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life.” 

Do your words kill or give life?

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” –Proverbs 18:21

Often we make the mistake of believing that words are mere symbols we use to convey a message. We have an idea, and we try to find the right words to express it.

This is only partly true.

Words do not just represent our thoughts; they shape them. Words do not just represent the world around us; they act as a filter that cause us to interpret that world in a particular way. Words are powerful. “In the beginning was the Word.” God “spoke”and created worlds. God can also destroy with the power of his word. The same goes with us (though on a smaller scale). Our words are more powerful than we think. They have power to cut someone down or build them up. As the above proverb states, our words can destroy, or they can give life.

Research confirms that this is true on a very literal level. The types of language we are exposed to subtly affect our view of the world and our mood. In a study in 1996, researchers ask volunteers to take a test in which they had to unscramble sets of words and form them into sentences. The task was not too difficult, but the researchers were not interested in how well they performed on the test.

When they were finished with the test, the volunteer had to give the test to an attendant at the desk. The desk person was absorbed in conversation with a friend, also at the desk (both actors staging the situation).

The real test of the experiment was to see how aggressively the volunteers would interrupt the conversation to turn in the exam. Two groups of volunteers had been given two different types of exams. The words to unscramble in one exam were words like patient, friendly, happy, and kind. The words in the other exam were words like irritating, annoyed, impatient, and angry.

 

The results were fascinating. The volunteers who formed sentences with positive words were more likely to wait a moment before gently interrupting the conversation. The group who unscrambled the negative words were more likely to aggressively interrupt and act annoyed. Other factors were controlled, so the only difference with the two groups was the kinds of words they were exposed to.

The implications of this study should profoundly affect a pfile0001964396712erson’s discipleship. We must pay attention to kinds of language that we not only use, but expose ourselves to. It’s worth considering, if we find ourselves in a cynical and depressed mood, have we been unconsciously marinating in cynical and depressed language? Think about the amount of garbage that even unconsciously flashes on our screen on the internet.

Our words have the power of life or death. But “our words” are not just those we speak. They are also those we listen to or read. As an experiment, become aware of the words in your life, and focus on the words that give life.

Sheldon Lawrence is the founder of bibledice.com, an award winning essayist, and author of the recent afterlife novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life.” 

 

Glitch Fixed!

Update 1/25: The glitch is fixed! Sorry for the trouble and thank you for your patience.

 

The website is experiencing a glitch where it gets stuck on the same scripture and does not update to a new one when the Bible is clicked again. We apologize for this inconvenience and are working on a fix.

God the Destroyer

We tend to think of God as the great Creator. God builds; He is the Author and Architect. It is Satan who destroys. The problem with this is that it’s only half right. It misses an essential characteristic of God, one we must understand to fully claim what God offers us. God is a destroyer. His creative work, in fact, relies on destruction.

The Bible is filled with examples of a destructive God. He is the Lord of Hosts. He lays waste, tears down, brings to ruin. He levels Sodom and Gomorrah, wipes the slate clean with the flood. Many believe incorrectly that this “harsh” Old Testament God was replaced with a kinder, gentler version in the New Testament.

But Christ was also a destroyer. He came with a sword to disrupt and destroy the established order of things. Not only did he overturn the tables in the temple, but he overturned our view of God and reality.

Destruction is a requirement for creation. Anytime something new is created, something old is destroyed in the process. Old buildings that have outlived their usefulness must be brought down. Overgrown and diseased forests must burn so that new growth and new life take root in the blackened soil. Bodies must be destroyed by disease and death before they can rise again in the resurrection. For “as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life”(Rom. 6:4). We cannot become a new self in God without destroying the old self in the process. “Our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed”(Rom. 6:6).

Too often new creation cannot happen in our lives because we are unwilling to destroy (or allow God to destroy) old patterns, old habits, and old beliefs. Christ spoke of renouncing the world and even the self. I do not believe this meant living in a cave and meditating for our entire lives. It means we must be willing to let old things die so that new ones can replace them. We renounce the self in order to find it.

My novel, Hearts of the Fathers, follows the journey of a soul in the afterlife where he must choose between destroying his old self and rising to his potential, or languishing in the hell of old habits and limiting beliefs acquired on Earth.

But this is precisely the dilemma we face every day. We say we want courage, but there is something in us still attached to weakness. We say we want to live to the fullest and let our light shine, but something in us does not want to destroy the comfortable self that hides from the light. Yet we know, deep down, that good enough must be destroyed to make room for great.

It is worth considering: What old patterns and mentalities are keeping us stuck? What needs to be destroyed in our lives right now?  Maybe it’s a relationship. Maybe it’s a job. Maybe it’s an addiction we use to escape our reality rather than transform it. But maybe it’s something even deeper. Bad jobs, relationships, and addictions are usually manifestations of deeper fears that prevent us from living courageously. Are we willing to question those fears and beliefs, or just keeping getting by?

We all have things in our life that need destroying. Next time you pray, before praying to God the Creator to renew your life, consider first praying to God the Destroyer to help clear the way and make the necessary space for the abundant life to take root.

 

Sheldon Lawrence is the founder of bibledice.com, an award winning essayist, and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life.” 

 

“A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace” Advent book review

 

Guest review by Nancy Hoch

“Whatever our religious affiliations or lack of them, we practice being the people that the season asks us to be.”

These are lines from a more than memorable little Christmas book produced by one of our own right here in Pocatello.  Author Susan Swetnam of Idaho State University’s English Department has produced a number of thought-provoking books, including this one.  She is a devout Catholic, and though her book deals with the season of Advent as celebrated by Catholics, much of the book will have meaning to any caring and committed Christian.

The title is “A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace.”  As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preparing for Christmas each year, a title that would be clearer for those of my faith might be “A Season of Little Wonders: Christmas Commotion, Christmas Peace.”  This slight change in meaning aside, for non-Catholics, the importance of this warmly-written book is the overall message it conveys.  As readers, we can feel the approach of that special day with the author—which includes many new and exciting ways to truly celebrate that wondrous event.

The author takes us through poignant reflections in her own life, especially those dealing with the Christmases after the passing of her husband.  She writes of her personal growth as she experiences greater devotion, the practicing of more patience, and the writing of a non-traditional Christmas letter.  There are delightful ideas on activities such as hosting a Sunday afternoon wreath-making party with close friends and also ways she prepares for an annual Christmas gathering at her home.

There are thoughts on the simplicity Christmas lights can bring and even the act of de-cluttering her pantry.  That particular day-long activity becomes symbolic of the clutter that can rob any of us of deeper meaning if we allow ourselves to over-prepare at Christmas.  She shares fresh ideas on how to make, or select, truly meaningful gifts throughout the year and other thoughts that help us to truly “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” as it is sung each year in Handel’s magnificent oratorio, “Messiah.”

This book gives honest insights into the frustrations and temptations that can steal from us the joy of what should be the most meaningful day of the year.  We are led to truly make room in our homes and in our lives—room for the celebration of the coming of the savior into mortality.

Originally published in the Idaho State Journal, 26 Nov. 2016 “Pocatello Woman’s Christmas Book Gives Insights For All”

“A Season of Little Sacraments” by Susan Swetnan is available here.

Excerpt: A conversation with an atheist in the afterlife

Hearts of the Fathers – Chapter 11

More than a hundred students looked on as the Professor introduced me to the class. It appeared that even a few faculty members had dropped in to hear my tale.

“Begin with the moment of your death on Earth,” he said.

I told my story, and whenever he felt I was sugar coating things, he pressed me for detail.

“Few people in this realm have been to the slum worlds,” he said.

Despite his prodding, I left out much of my experience in Hell and on Earth, not wanting to relive the horrors. And I didn’t want to feel like an ex-convict warning school children to just say no to drugs.

When I came to my rescue, I nearly used the word “angels” to describe my Guardian and his attendants but was embarrassed to use the term in this environment.

“It looks like you have met the Shiners,” said the professor with a laugh. “They must be getting desperate if they’re milling around in the slums to look for new recruits.” The students chuckled.

“Shiners?” I said, surprised that he had used the same term as Raven.

“They’re part of a powerful religious cult. They live in a different realm, but they come here looking for new recruits, luring easily-duped people with the promise of a better life in a better world. Basically the same kind of religious garbage that was sold in the old life. Those who were most religious during their life on Earth are the most susceptible to their evangelizing. But at least you didn’t get sucked in, to your credit.”

“But they helped me,” I said. “They were there when I needed them.”

“Sure, as long as you buy into what they’re selling,” said the Professor.

“But what about religion and God and all that?”

It was a risk to go there. Whenever religion came up in class in the old world, he would put on a mock attitude of patience and restraint, as if, were he less of a gentleman, he would be tempted to let loose a tirade and put such nonsense to rest immediately, but would instead patiently explain just one more time the folly of the student’s question. Most of the students learned what kind of questions to ask and what kind not to ask.

“I mean,” I continued, “here we are, still alive after our death on Earth. Weren’t they wrong, the atheists—or what did you call them—the scientific materialists? Didn’t they get it wrong?”

The class looked at me with a mixture of humor and anticipation, as if to say, this is going to be good.

“The materialists were wrong?” replied the professor with mock surprise. “Well let’s think about that. Look around and tell me what you see. If it’s not matter and energy, tell me what it is. Touch your face. Are you a ghost? A dream?”

“But we’re still alive after our death,” I said, trying to recover. “Doesn’t that mean we must have souls and all that?” I was unguarded. These questions, unlike those I asked in college, were sincere, born of genuine confusion rather than a desire to sound smart. “You told me yourself the promise of an afterlife was to pacify the uneducated and oppressed, to keep them from revolting and trying to improve their life on Earth.”

“Well,” he said. “I was both right and wrong, just as you are in this moment. Yes, consciousness somehow continues, and we have some excellent theories to explain the physics behind it. The mind we developed on Earth somehow forms a copy of itself in a parallel dimension. So we keep going, for now. No need to conclude that the soul is eternal or comes from God.”

“But it might,” I said.

He only laughed. “You’re new here. You don’t understand how far we’ve come in our understanding of the universe. Where is this Heaven that ‘might’ exist? Where is that God who sits on His golden throne answering everyone’s questions and solving everyone’s problems? Nowhere to be found. No harps or angels or Jesus to make it all better.

“We still answer our own questions and solve our own problems through scientific inquiry. Our research continues to point to a rational, natural universe, although admittedly more complex than we realized on Earth. When you dig deeper into nature, you don’t find super-nature. You just find more nature, matter and energy just like before. Our knowledge is still empirical, observable, and repeatable. The scientific method applies here as much as it did in the old life, even more.”

I recognized the old fire and certainty in his voice, a mixture of defiance and intelligence. Just listening to him made me want to be on his side. His tone dared you to disagree with him.

“Besides,” he continued. “How certain are you that you are experiencing a life after your death on Earth?”

“I died in a car wreck,” I said.

“Can you be quite certain of that? What evidence do you have of your physical death?”

This was another of his techniques I remembered from college. It was one I loved very much, especially when he applied it to what I thought of as less-intelligent students. He had a way of taking the most certain and obvious truths of our existence and turning them into problems. He could make someone doubt the very ground they walked upon.

I didn’t know how to answer. My existence was as real and obvious to me as anything I had known. I had a perfect recollection of all that had happened to me since my car wreck. But I had not, come to think of it, actually seen my dead body. I had not seen my funeral. Most of my post-death memories, though vivid, were more like a nightmare.

He let me puzzle over the question for a moment, then continued.

“There is a school of thought among some of our best minds here that asserts all of this is a dream. They believe their physical death has not actually occurred and that this is a coma-induced dream world. They believe their bodies are on life support in hospitals, and that eventually they will awaken back into their regular life, or their family will pull the plug, finally extinguishing their existence.

“Can you prove they are wrong? Can you prove to them they exist? Can you prove that you exist as a real entity beyond your supposed physical death on Earth? Maybe you survived that car wreck and you’re in a hospital right now, hooked up to life support.”

My mind was spinning, and I felt dizzy, like there was nothing to grasp on to. The thing I thought most certain—that my life had continued—was now in question. I could hear other students chuckling under their breath. Now I was the class dunce, paying the price for having said something stupid.

I was about to attempt Descartes’s famous “I think therefore I am” proposition, but I knew he had already thought of that and would have a ready response. I was done talking and wanted to dissolve into the anonymity of the class. If I were in a coma somewhere, this would have been a great time to wake up…or pull the plug.

“I guess I can’t prove anything,” I said, finally breaking the silence.

And then it came, the rescue, the counterargument that would show the issue was more complex than originally supposed. He wasn’t without mercy. He would hold students intellectually hostage, but he would eventually throw them a bone.

“The problem with that theory, of course, is that everyone who holds it believes they are the ones lying in the hospital bed in a coma, and that the rest of us are just props in their dream. To my mind, this is bad philosophy. We only have access to our own consciousness so it follows that we will be biased in favoring the reality of our own existence above others. We must take the facts as they are, and not fall into a solipsistic denial of reality on the one hand, or, on the other hand, strive for a supposed absolute reality in God.”

I was relieved, not only because he was moving on from my interrogation, but because assuming the reality of my existence was not as stupid as he first made it sound. Now I can see the only foolish thing I had done was invest the power to validate or invalidate my being in another person. I allowed him to set boundaries on what were and were not acceptable ways to pursue truth.

Now that I had been made a fool by his intellect, I decided never to be caught off guard again. I would redeem myself. He would see in me the intelligence he had once appreciated. I had grown intellectually soft after college, and even after my death my mind had dulled. I would work and prove myself, and he would not regret taking me in. I wanted him to see me as a peer worthy of real debate.

After the class, the Professor approached me and said, “I hope I didn’t come off as too harsh. I appreciate you having the guts to tell your story. You’re lucky you made it, you know. And I don’t just mean out of that pit. It looks like the Shiners are on to you, so you aren’t in the clear yet. Don’t let them get into your mind.”

I wasn’t worried. I had found a new home and wasn’t looking for another. The University captured my imagination, and I felt like I could spend eons there. But the Professor knew me better than I knew myself. I had been infected with the God virus, and my symptoms were already showing.

 

Read more here.

This is the first chapter of the exciting new spiritual novel Hearts of the Fathers–a story of one man’s journey out of Hell to discover a universe grounded in God’s love. 

Fleeing from a deadly head on collision, a man descends into a hellish realm to hide from Heaven’s beckoning light. God can rescue him from the darkness, but escaping Hell is only the beginning. The greatest test will come as he confronts his broken relationships and sees himself and others in truth. 

 In a journey through spirit worlds where beliefs, pain, and addictions continue to limit the progress of departed souls, Hearts of the Fathers takes on the critical question: How can we overcome the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual blocks that prevent us from reaching our God-given potential? 

 Inspired by the research of hundreds of near-death experiences, this book will transform the way you view spiritual growth. Available on Amazon here.  

How Not Forgiving is Killing You

The Bible teaches that forgiveness is good for the soul, but it turns out that what is good for the soul is good for the body as well. Medical research is increasingly showing a strong correlation between forgiveness and improved health. According to an article at John’s Hopkins:

Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points  to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.

Too often people withhold forgiveness because they misunderstand what it means. They think it means minimizing the wrongness of what others have done or coming to the conclusion that it’s “All okay, no big deal.” Therefore, they view holding on to the grievance as a way of living honestly or setting the record straight. To forgive would let the other person “win.” But forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It doesn’t even require their participation.

Forgiveness is not about letting people off the hook or allowing them to take advantage of us. If, for example, you have forgiven an employee for theft and given him a second chance, but the crime happens again, it would be possible to fire that employee while still forgiving him. You must protect the integrity of your business, but you can forgive in the sense of letting go of resentment and hostility for that person.

Forgiveness is not an action performed in a single moment, like checking something off a list. It is a way of being or a way of approaching the world. It means you have a forgiving heart that wants to error on the side of making peace. Better to occasionally get duped or hurt in the cause of peace than move through life constantly suspicious and guarded. You might make it through life without ever getting taken advantage of, but it will come at the cost of cultivating a hard heart.

Holding onto grudges and reliving past hurt is a full time job. Protecting our ego is hard work. That is why Christ called his own life easy: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(Matthew 11:30). When we read the Gospels, Christ’s life seems anything but easy, but he didn’t carry the mental and emotional burden of keeping track of whose fault it was and who started it. He asked us to try it out: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

Many think their hard situation is a special exception to the need to forgive. “If only it were as simple as an employee stealing money! But my situation is toxic!” But our health doesn’t care about excuses, and it doesn’t make exceptions for so called “justified” anger and resentment. Our body doesn’t say, “Ah, well, this anger and judgement is completely understandable, so we’ll make sure it doesn’t affect our health.” Whether you think your anger is justified or not, your body will suffer.

Grudges, resentments, anger–these are not just concepts, but actual dark energies that reside in our body. When Christ healed people, he was not merely mending physical ailments; he was, at least in some cases, removing these energies: “Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?” (Mark 2:9)

It has been said that lack of forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That isn’t just a nice metaphor. Resentment and anger really are poison to not only our souls, but our physical bodies. If spiritual reasons to forgive seem too abstract or unrealistic, then at least try to forgive in the interest of your health.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers,” a story of one soul’s journey into the afterlife to discover the truth of forgiveness and redemption, available here.  

Descent into Hell (Ch. 1 Hearts of the Fathers)

They have let me come and speak to you in your sleep. They said it would help us heal but that I should not go alone because seeing my son again in the flesh could pull me back down—my love could lapse into need or self-pity. So my friend, my Guardian, has escorted me here and is watching me, taking care, ready to fill me with light if necessary. He is wise; even now, seeing you here, I long to be part of your life and wonder what might have been if I could have seen into your heart. But regret is heavy and can quickly drop into self-indulgent despair. I have come too far to risk that.

I want to tell you how I came to this point and where I have been since my death. I want to tell you about the hard path of repentance for someone with my stubborn heart and the difficulty of fixing things from where I am, close enough to touch you but separated by a universe. You carry so much of me within you—some good, some bad. I bear some of the burden you inherited from me, and I would labor for eternity if necessary to lift it from you. My greatest pain is knowing the problems I passed on to you like a virus, and knowing that you will in some degree pass them to your children. I have learned how deeply our paths and eternal destinies are intertwined.

I used to believe that we were all individuals dealing with our own problems, making our own way, succeeding or failing based on our own merits. But I was wrong. I have come to know we are not separate. We are parts of the same whole, a living organism. One of us is not saved without the other, and so on through the generations. When one is lifted, the entire organism is lifted; when one falls, the entire human family feels it.

We can make things right. That is the great truth, the beautiful mystery. You are still in the game, and I am one of legions cheering for you, encouraging you, and praying for you. You carry within you the hopes and burdens of your ancestors. Growth and repentance are so much easier where you are, in the flesh, but even here we are all involved in the work of salvation.

If you retain any of this, it will seem like a strange and disjointed dream. But I hope something I say will ring true to you. That one day while reading something, or in conversation, when you hear something true, you will feel a resonance, like you have heard it before, that somehow it makes sense. I did nothing to teach you faith while on Earth, but now I can at least whisper this story into your soul and hope that it somehow finds a place there. More than anything, I hope that, even if only in your dreams, your heart can begin to turn toward me, your father.

*

The first thing I remember after the accident is the powerful urge to flee the scene. There, in the darkness of a remote mountain highway, lay a steaming mess of two mangled vehicles. I told myself I was going for help, but there was no question that I was running from the mess I had just caused, running from the consequences of my choices.  I knew I had been driving drunk and that I would be arrested when the police arrived. I could hear moans of agony coming from the other car but did not go to help. I felt both relief and a small pang of guilt upon finding I had survived the wreck without even a scratch.

In the distance I thought I saw a house and told myself I would go there and get help, spinning my motives to look more innocent than they were. I would run and get help, I told myself. But there was no question why I was really running. I would run for the same reasons I had always run away, to escape, to hide from responsibility. I wanted the forest to bury me so its blanket of darkness would cover my sins. In the pale moonlight, I could see bodies in the twisted wreck, even, improbably, a motionless body in my own car—one I assumed had been thrown into my vehicle on impact. I could not face what I had done.

I heard a distinct voice say, “Don’t run.” I looked around to see who said it, but I was the only one standing in the cool night air. The voice came a second time, more like a warning, and seemed to come from within my chest.

Above the highway there appeared a piercing light that illuminated the entire scene. Not only were the mangled cars on display, but the truth of what had happened hung in the air, an undeniable reality. The true cause of the crash, my intentions in running, the injured people in the other car—they were all laid open before me with perfect clarity.

I told myself the light was from another car, or perhaps a result of hitting my head. But every time I lied to myself in the presence of this light, the absurdity of my thoughts were naked and obvious. If only in this moment I had yielded, submitted to the wisdom of this light, allowed it to lay me open and work its truth upon me, I could have been spared a lot of pain. The light invited me into it, but I resisted.

Now more than ever, I wanted to run. I could not bear the presence of the light and wanted to be as far from its influence as possible. The voice from within again begged me not to go into the forest, but I pushed it away and plunged off the embankment into the thick, dark trees below.

My descent was fast and steep. What I thought was a small drop leading to the flat bottom of the canyon now plunged deep into the darkness. I was not dropping into a canyon, but an abyss, a dark pit that would hide me from the all-knowing light at my back. As I pushed downward through the darkness, the voice of warning grew fainter with each step, and then finally, to my relief, fell silent.

I finally reached the bottom of the canyon as the ground gave way to a gentler but still downward slope. The steep wall I had stumbled down for so long was no longer visible. Nothing about the landscape looked familiar. I was now impossibly far away from the wreck; it seemed to be worlds away.

The moonlight was gone, replaced by a soft gray mist. The landscape was cold. A kind of bone-chilling emptiness pervaded the atmosphere. I kept walking, not knowing what else to do, still lying to myself by saying I was looking for help. In the dim light I saw a grove of trees ahead, a tangled mass of branches and undergrowth. I hesitated.

A voice, somehow familiar, came from deep within the forest. “Look! It can still see you. The grove will protect you. Hide!”

I looked up in the direction of the wreck and could still see a pinpoint of light like a single star in a black sky. The voice was right. The light was still watching me. Though distant, my movements and thoughts were as obvious to it as when I was directly under its gaze. Seized with the fear of being captured (by what or whom I could not tell) I ran into the grove, pushing deep within until the spark of light above was no longer visible.

I could hear beyond the trees—or was it deeper in the forest?—the muffled sound of human voices.

“Hey!” I shouted into the darkness. The sound of my own voice almost startled me. It was loud and forceful. Anger and frustration welled up and my voice felt powerful, even violent. The buzz of alcohol was completely gone, and I was more alert and more alive than ever.

I pushed on toward the direction of the voices, but the forest grew thicker and darker. I no longer felt I was among living trees but only thick, finger-like shadows, sometimes snagging me and holding me back, not like branches so much as hands. This sense of being held down made me even angrier, and I threw off the branches, or shadows, in frustration. Whenever I expressed my anger vocally or even mentally, I heard the sound of mocking laughter.

The laughter grew loud and someone said, “Not yet; let him keep going.” Was it a real voice or just inside my head? I couldn’t tell.

“Who is that?” I yelled.

The aggressiveness of my own voice frightened me. The air was thick with rage, and I breathed it in. Fear had given way to anger. An animal was growing inside me, nourished by the waves of violence and hate that filled the grove. As my anger grew, so did my physical strength. I walked with my fists and teeth clenched. I could fight, or kill, anything. I dared something to challenge me. I forgot the lie of looking for help. Walking through the trees had become its own purpose, something to push against, something to fight against.

Every thought, every memory, was an irritation. The accident, now like a distant memory, was an annoyance. If it weren’t for the stupidity of the other driver, I wouldn’t be wandering through this forest looking for…whatever I was looking for. I didn’t care if those in the other car had survived. Their death would be their just consequence. Something softer inside me listened in horror as I said aloud, “I hope they’re all dead.”

The few voices in the forest—or in my mind—were now the indistinct murmur of a crowd. Sometimes laughter would ring out, sometimes a cry of pain, sometimes frustration, and sometimes all of these at once. I was going mad with confusion. No way could so many people be here, in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a canyon. But I was watched. My every step was counted, calculated. The trees watched me, the shadows watched me. They followed me, all of them. The shadows closed in and collapsed the path behind me, and ahead of me they grew thicker with each step.

The black branches seemed to intentionally grab at my face or trip my feet. Fueled by an inexhaustible hatred, I pushed down the shadowy branches and snapped their limbs with strength I had never before experienced. I was a beast wrecking my way through the undergrowth. Sometimes a tree would wrap a limb around my neck or my waist, but I would rip it away with ease.

A joyless laughter came from deep in the shadows, a mocking, triumphant laughter. I stopped and listened in the darkness. Aggression swelled within me.

“Who is that?” I yelled.

Nothing. Only a faint, suppressed laughter.

I was hopelessly lost; the scene of the wreck felt like a thousand miles away. Should I turn and fight my way back up the hill? I turned around, and not a trace of my path could be detected. A grayish light illuminated an ocean of tangled shadows that had closed the path behind me.  No mountain, no light in the distance.

Both rage and fear swept over me, one moment coaxing me to turn back, the next moment prodding me deeper into the forest. My mind was now a crowd of voices, mostly in the form of my own voice complaining and raging about the wreck, my job that made me take that trip, and this pointless trek.

I pushed on through the tangled mess of trees, but they no longer felt like trees. Rough bark was now smooth and cold, like—I didn’t want to admit it—the skin of something dead. The shadowy branches now bent and coiled like snakes. One reached down and caressed my cheek and neck, pulling away when I reached for it. Another jabbed me hard in the ribs, and I grabbed it and pulled it apart, its flesh tearing in my hands. It shrieked in pain, but the cry was only a mocking one followed by laughter, like when a child proves it isn’t really hurt.

In a normal state, I would have been terrified at what was happening. But the hateful and oppressive atmosphere overshadowed any sense of good judgement or even self-preservation. It was like being in a dream; you do not stop to wonder at the strangeness of events, but simply take the world as it is, not questioning its reality.

In this world the overwhelming desire, the most obvious thing to do, was to fight someone or something. My rage transformed me. Nothing was stronger than me. I now dared them to come for me, these voices, whatever they were.

“He’s almost ripe,” said one of them. Their shadowy figures began to take form. They were like hungry wolves waiting to be let off a chain. They howled and laughed in anticipation.

“When?” they cried. “When?”

There were now hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. I turned to run, but my legs and arms were bound. Fingerlike branches, black against the gray atmosphere, wrapped around my body, forcing me to the ground. Like a fly caught in a web, the more I struggled, the more I sent waves of excitement through the legion of beings gathered around me. They had waited a long time for this, and they were ready to reap the harvest.

An authoritative voice from the darkness finally let them have their reward.

“Now.”

Read more here.

This is the first chapter of the exciting new spiritual novel Hearts of the Fathers–a story of one man’s journey out of Hell to discover a universe grounded in God’s love. 

Fleeing from a deadly head on collision, a man descends into a hellish realm to hide from Heaven’s beckoning light. God can rescue him from the darkness, but escaping Hell is only the beginning. The greatest test will come as he confronts his broken relationships and sees himself and others in truth. 

 In a journey through spirit worlds where beliefs, pain, and addictions continue to limit the progress of departed souls, Hearts of the Fathers takes on the critical question: How can we overcome the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual blocks that prevent us from reaching our God-given potential? 

 Inspired by the research of hundreds of near-death experiences, this book will transform the way you view spiritual growth. Available on Amazon here.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aiming at Heaven

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” – C. S. Lewis

When I was a teenager growing up in West Yellowstone, Montana, I heard of the death of two snowmobilers caught in an avalanche. I could see from my home the mountain where it happened. It was not a very uncommon event; every winter people died on their snow machines in one way or another. But for some reason the news haunted me; maybe because the winters in Yellowstone were long and dark, and my mood would often match the landscape. A day after hearing the news, I was napping in a half-asleep, half-awake state when a vision of the men’s death came to mind. I saw and felt the men tumbling in the chaos of hundreds of tons of snow, and then silence and suffocation—the last gasping breaths of being buried alive. I woke suddenly, startled with the realization that someday, somehow, I would take my last breath on earth.

From this and other experiences, I sought from an early age to better understand death and the afterlife. Death may be, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, the mother of beauty. For me it has also been the mother of spirituality. I know some think this is backwards—that true spirituality is born of a love of God or love of one’s neighbor. Death and what lay beyond, they argue, is a distraction from the “here and now” where life is truly lived. There’s much truth to all that, of course.

But the mystery of death looms over every moment. This fact is haunting, beautiful, horrifying, and hopeful all at the same time. Shakespeare called death the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. Yet, with modern medicine, an increasing number of people do return after experiencing clinical death. They return with stories of light and love and reunion with deceased family members. A small minority even have hellish experiences.

People who have these experiences are changed in profound ways. They often have difficulty re-adjusting to normal life. The things of this world—money, ambition, fame, status—lose their appeal. Instead, they become interested in learning and improving their relationships. They become highly sensitive to violence and conflict—no longer able to even watch movies they once enjoyed.

I have read literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these experiences. Yes, like any event, the stories are filtered through the worldview of the experiencers, but I believe they are essentially true. I believe these people have caught a glimpse of something real, something that makes this life seem like a dream by comparison.

Too often we make every effort to sanitize death or pretend it won’t happen, but NDEs remind us of the fragility of life—the car accident, the sudden heart attack, the drowning at the local pool, the slow deterioration caused by chronic disease. Yet they also teach that death is not the end, nor is it an escape from the self. We continue to make choices and learn from those choices beyond the grave. We take ourselves with us, so it’s worth paying attention to what kind of self we cultivate in this life.

A few years ago I saw, in my mind’s eye, a soul wandering in the afterlife. It was a lost soul, essentially good and reaching out for something higher, but desperately clinging to former fears and attachments. I wasn’t sure who he was or where he was going or what was driving him, but I wanted to find out. Writing Hearts of the Fathers was largely a process of following this man on his journey and discovering what was in his heart—what was giving him hope and what was preventing him from rising into the light. I do not presume with this little novel to offer final answers to the mystery of what lay beyond death. This book represents a spiritual journey, an exploration of possibilities, not a final destination. It is my hope and prayer that readers enjoy this journey and maybe make a few discoveries along the way.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.  

Superstar

 

“In the mouth of the foolish is a rod of pride: but the lips of the wise shall preserve them.” Proverbs 14:3

Ever since I was a little boy I have struggled to keep my zipper locked in its secure and upright position. I remember wearing brown corduroys and the way the fly would gape open like a brass-toothed mouth announcing my shame to the world. I didn’t see shame in it. But my older siblings made sure I understood what an embarrassment this failure was.

When I comprehended the mechanical nature of the device and that sometimes mechanics can fail, I had my excuse. “It’s broken,” I would say. “That’s why!”

Even new pants came with the defect. “Broken again?” my brother jeered one day. “Are all your pants broken?” Well, what else could it be? I remembered zipping it earlier. The problem was I couldn’t tell which day the memory came from. I was certain I had zipped it yesterday, piece-a-junk.

The whole business of zippers seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Why would God put a hole in your pants right in that most inauspicious place? That the zipper was to facilitate using the bathroom never occurred to me since, like all other self-respecting boys my age I dropped my drawers to my ankles to do my business–shirt tucked under chin and hips thrust forward. A three inch opening could never compete with that level of freedom.

Things have improved in adulthood, but I’m still not out of the woods with malfunctioning zippers. As I teacher, I have taught entire classes on the fly, only for students to inform me of the indiscretion at the end of class. Because of my favorable marriage to an alert woman, I now have a support system much less harsh than mocking siblings and friends. It turns out my problem needed understanding, not ridicule. My wife now helps refine my presentation in polite society.

The value of this support hit home recently when my wife and I attended a book club. After a good meal and conversation we retired to the living room to discuss the book at hand, a significant work on culture and philosophy. The evening progressed smoothly in a lively exchange of wit and wisdom punctuated with light laughter.

Just after I made one comment that I felt was particularly insightful, my wife leaned over and whispered, “You’re a superstar!” Indeed, I thought, and smiled with satisfaction. It was a rather fine comment, though I had never heard her compliment my intellect in such glowing terms. I was happy to wear this new title.

Moments later, and after another poignant comment, she again lavished me with praise, leaning even closer to my ear, “You’re a superstar!” Again! I must really be on a roll tonight. And I was just getting warmed up.

But I grew suspicious. In seventeen years of marriage, I had sometimes been told I was a good husband or father, but I had never been a superstar. And now I was a superstar twice in one night.

Then it hit me. I was not a superstar at all. I was the very opposite—a clumsy little boy in brown corduroys.

As the reality of my condition slowly sunk in, she leaned in again to remove all doubt: “Your zipper’s down.”

In addition to having a zipper problem, I’ve always been a little hard of hearing, and it turns out “superstar” and “zipper’s down” have remarkably similar phonetic structures. Or maybe the problem is better diagnosed as wishful hearing, a condition where my pride transforms unpleasant news into whatever it would rather hear.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.