Sunday, June 11, 2023

Why you matter

Do you matter? And if so, why? I read a physicist’s answer to that question once. He said that when the universe formed 14 billion years ago, matter and antimatter collided and burst into energy, then reformed into matter and antimatter and then did it all over again until, for reasons yet unknown, there was no more antimatter. The universe, he said, is made up of all the matter that was left over after all the antimatter had been destroyed. The difference in amounts between matter and antimatter was no more than one percent.

You matter, he said, because you are matter.

Well, maybe, but I doubt that answer is very consoling in the dark of the night. Here is a story, a parable if you will, of one evening on a Chicago commuter train.

It was about 10 o’clock one weeknight when three young tough guys, full of swagger and threat, boarded a car. There were not many riders aboard at that hour – a young woman clutching a grocery sack, a tired-looking, middle-aged laborer leaning against a support bar, not even looking up, a few others. As a leopard sees which gazelles are weak, the young punks scanned the car for prey.
They saw an older man, maybe 70 or so, in a gray coat and tie, not Brooks Brothers but not off the Goodwill rack, either. He was seated in the next section, reading a folded newspaper. And so, laughing loudly and shuffling noisily, the punks approached. The leader stood before the suited man and punched his newspaper.

“Hey man!” he yelled. “You’re sitting in my seat!”

When the man looked up, the young punkster was somewhat surprised that his face and eyes registered alert awareness, but not fear. So the punkster glared at him more threateningly.

The gray man spoke. “Well, I’d better move, then.” He pulled his paper back, folded it with care, placed it under his arms, and stood. “Pardon me,” he said kindly to the punk leader, and placing the back of his right hand gently on the young man’s sleeve, he pressed lightly to the side and stepped across the car. There he turned and sat, unfolded his paper, looked at the punkster, smiled slightly and said, “Please, have your seat.” Then he set his eyes on the newsprint and said no more.

The young punk stood there for a moment, slightly shrugged and sat down. The two gangster sidekicks with him sat on either side. “Well, what a bunch of losers we wound up with tonight!” said one, much too loudly and to no visible effect on the dozen people in the car. Then he stared at the gray man for a long moment. “And I think you’re the biggest loser of all.”

The gray man returned the gaze and shortly simply said, “Very well.” Then he began reading again.

The punk leader leaned forward. “Hey man, I’ll give you a real reason to be afraid!” Several people nearby glanced nervously. “You hear me?”

The gray man folded his paper into his lap. “No,” he said, “you may give me a reason to be concerned. But not a reason to be afraid.” Then the gray man did the most unexpected thing. He stood, stepped to stand in front of the sidekick and said, “Excuse me, but I’d like to sit there for a moment.” The sidekick snorted, “Man, stuff you!” or something like that, which evoked a comment from the gray man to the punk leader, “Would you mind, only for a moment?”

“Shee,” the punkster said. “I ain’t afraid of you.” To the sidekick he said, “Get up.” Wordlessly, the glaring young man arose and the gray man sat. “Well?” said the punkster. “I ain’t got all night.”
Looking directly at the punkster, the gray man said, “I am no match for you and I know it. If you want to wipe up the floor with me I can’t stop you. But you don’t know what to about me because you live with fear and I don’t.”

“What you mean?” came the answer. “I said I ain’t afraid of you! You talking stuff, that’s all, old man.”

“I know you are not afraid me of me, nor should you be. You are not afraid of anything inside this car. But I didn’t say you were afraid. I said you are full of fear. Not of anything in here. You fear what’s out there.” He waved his hand toward the darkness outside.

“Oh, yeah?” the punk retorted. “What do you think is out there that I am so afraid of?”

“Nothing,” the gray man said simply. “That nothing is all there is. That when you have finished walking down the path of life, there will not remain even a footprint to show your passing.” The punkster stared at the gray man, working his jaw, his eyes flashing. The gray man continued. “Nothing fills your soul because nothing matters. And that is your fear – buried so deep inside you that you hardly know it’s there, the fear that you don’t matter, either, not at all.”

It is the unique invention of Judaism, passed on to Christianity, that individual human beings matter personally to God. No other religion in the world teaches that.

One might think that Islam says that Allah cares for and about human beings just as Judaism and Christianity say, but no, not even close. A Muslim author wrote, for example, “The Quran states that Allah is as ‘near to man as the jugular vein’” but this is not an assurance of comfort but of threat. In Islam, Allah remains unknown, unrevealed by the Quran, which consists of admonishments and commands but says almost nothing about Allah himself. Allah is entirely separate and unconnected to human affairs except through the giving of strict laws. Allah remains a mystery; he does not make personal, self-revealing approaches to mortals nor seek fellowship with them. Muslim jurist Samuel Solomon wrote that Islam is not a personal religion at all. Islam claims no knowledge of a self-revealing and self-bestowing of God.[1]Allah commands, Allah judges, but the Quran says Allah loves only those who obey him and explicitly says he does not love non-Muslims.[2]Allah demands not human love but submission, willing or unwilling, either will do. As one Muslim author states, “We can know nothing about the nature of God except through [his] commands … .”[3]

In none of the Eastern religions is there the notion that individuals matter in any transcendent way.  The present life is viewed as a curse from which escape is desirable but almost impossible to achieve. Nirvana, for example, is “achieved by the extinction of desire and of individual consciousness,” to escape the cycle of life, death and reincarnation. If escape is achieved, all personal identity is lost and one’s soul merges with universal consciousness. But the gods, for the eastern religions that have them, do not care whether you achieve this, nor do they interact with human beings.

All the rest of the world’s religions are varieties of nature religions with hundreds of variants from Wicca to Voodoo in which the idea of a personal deity for whom individual persons matter is not included.

Outside of Judaism, in the ancient world of Jesus’ day the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses reigned supreme except for vestiges of Babylonian and Persian religions. However, in all of them the god's interacted with humanity in unpredictable, often capricious ways. Mortals were tools of the gods to achieve their own ends when the gods bothered to notice mortals at all. The gods were not moral exemplars whose characters were spotless and pure. Murder, incest and rape were all attributed to the Greek gods, whose main attributes were power and immortality, not goodness. As for the ancient Greeks, as Tina Turner would later sing, “What’s love got to do with it?” A pupil of Aristotle wrote: "It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus."[4]

Alone against all these religions of the pointlessness of human life stood Judaism and its daughter Christianity. Alone they made divine love for individual human beings the centerpiece of belief. This love, though, is not the mushy, vapid sentimentalism that our pop culture sings about. The love of God for us, and our love for God in return, is instead a steadfast, bi-directional loyalty in covenant relationship. It is commitment, conviction and enduring trust that no matter what, this committed loyalty will never weaken. Isaiah explained it in God's words in chapter 46:

I will be your God throughout your lifetime—
    until your hair is white with age.
I made you, and I will care for you.
    I will carry you along and save you.

Jesus explained it this way in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 10:29-31
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. One day the younger son demanded his inheritance immediately. The father gave it to him and the young man moved far away, where he promptly wasted all his fortune on "riotous living."

Then he started back home, broke and hungry, determined to beg his father to accept him as a hired hand on the farm.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate! For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

The father is God, of course, and the son is you and me and anyone else we think doesn’t matter. The story is especially for every person like the Chicago punkster who fears he doesn’t matter. Paul Harvey related one day what actually happened in Spain some years ago. A man and his son, Pablo, had a bitter falling out. Pablo packed and left, vowing never to come back. For five years the father never heard from his son. The ache and regret and self-reproach was more than he could bear. Then one day a friend told him that he was sure he had seen Pablo in Madrid one day in a market.

The father took a train to Madrid and went straight to the newspaper office. There, he bought a full-page ad that said simply, "Pablo, I love you with all my heart. I forgive everything and beg you forgive me. Meet me Friday in front of the main library at 9 a.m. Love, your father."

Friday morning the father walked to the library with heart pounding. His son was waiting for him there, along with seventeen other young men, all named Pablo.

Yet these stories, as near the heart of the why we each matter to God as they are, only illustrate rather than define why you and I matter. At the center are not heart-warming stories but the bloody horror of the cross. That we matter to God is a guarantee sealed literally in blood. “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” and no longer counts our sins against us.[5]And since it took crucifixion to do that, then Jesus endured the cross.

If you were the only sinner in the world, the only one ever, Jesus would still have carried that cross to Golgotha and died upon it, just for you alone.

That is why you matter.

[5]2 Corinthians 5:19

Jesus is served

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