Pax Americana

This series of posts is my attempt to demonstrate that the language of the Revelation was actually symbolic code that was very intelligible to a first-century Jewish Christian living in the Roman Empire.  I’m re-writing the Revelation to communicate the same message, but to a twenty-first century American Christian audience, using symbols we understand.  This particular section parallels Revelation chapter 6.  If you want to catch up, here’s a PDF compilation of all the installments so far: The Revelation to JR. – Chapters 1-6.

I saw the Lamb sign one of the lines on the Order, and I heard one of the four creatures call out in a voice like a jet engine, “Come!”  I looked and saw a gleaming white 747!  Its pilot was wearing a turban and he was given a gold medal, and wherever he flew, he conquered and destroyed.

When the Lamb signed the second line on the Order, I heard the second creature call out, “Come!”  Out came a fleet of news vans, all blood red.  Their driver was allowed to take peace from the earth, to spread dissention and fear so that people would turn on each other.  He was given a giant gavel.

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A Death in Reflection

The final installment of my reflections on the life and death of John Barnes, my grandfather.

FW - Barnes I had driven down that road dozens of times.  And I had parked in that driveway just as often.  Every step I took towards the door was intimately familiar.  As was the doorknob I gripped and the entry way.  It wasn’t until I turned the corner into the living room that I noted the first difference.

A hospice bed.  Where the couch had always been.

And on the bed a wizened, crumpled form, barely larger than a child, and wrapped in a white sheet.  It took me several moments to realize that form was my grandfather John.

Amanda and I had flown into Kansas City to spend a few of John’s last days with him.  His kidneys were shutting down as a result of his lung cancer, which in turn had resulted from smoking for three quarters of a century.

John’s long and full life was almost over.

And I couldn’t help but observe how undignified death is.  I’d experienced death before, but this was the first time I’d ever watched someone in the process of dying.

For the next two days, we sat with John as he wasted away.  We fed him bits of toast and pieces of peaches.  He slept often and while he was awake he was barely coherent.  He didn’t know where he was, occasionally didn’t recognize us.  And he was scared and sick and all of this made him mean.  Undignified.  But as I sat with him, I saw two pictures of grace, beauty that even then grew out of the indignity of death.

These two moments will remain with me forever:

John had pulled himself up to sit on his bed and was complaining that he was tired and wanted to go home (he was home).  And my grandmother, Helen, went to him.

She sat down beside him.

And she spoke softly to him.  Whispered into his ear.  And scratched his back.

She held him and sat with him and even as he lashed out at her she stayed beside him.

John and Helen would have been married 60 years this July.  And in their interaction, in Helen’s loyalty and faithfulness to John, I bore witness to a picture of God’s loyalty and faithfulness to us in the midst of our pain and suffering.

God is faithful to us even when we lash out against him.

In another moment, Helen and Amanda had left, and I was alone with John.  He woke up, and in one of his more lucid moments looked at me and scoffed, “You and your tattoos.” (John was never a big fan of my ink.)

I laughed and we had a brief conversation about God.  My mom had told me that in the last year or so of his life, John had begun to doubt his picture of the afterlife.  I and his pastor had both had conversations with him, and one of those conversations must have come back to his mind in that moment, because he looked at me and spat out, “You don’t have any more idea than I do what happens next.”

I have discussed in two of my previous posts John’s faith, which he expressed primarily through his embodied life as a part of the Mound City, KS community.  John was an active part of his faith communities throughout his life, and his faith was lived out through his physical presence in the world – his generosity and service – much more so than through his thought and contemplation.

I sat by John as he lay dying and questioning and I wondered if a short season of doubt at the end of a long, full life can invalidate a lifetime of service and giving, of embodying the Gospel.

And I thought of the man who came to Jesus, asking for his daughter to be healed.  Jesus told him that all things were possible to them who believed and the man cried out,

“I believe!  Help my unbelief!”

Jesus told the man – doubts and all – that his daughter had been healed.  And the guy had to leave, travel a day and a half back to his home, not knowing anything about his daughter’s health.

His actions proved his faith, even when his thoughts couldn’t.

I held John’s hand as he slid back into the stupor of the dying.  And as he slept, I reflected on these things.

God is faithful to us.  And I truly believe that our actions speak at least as loudly as our words.  And hopefully, sometimes, even louder.

John was dead less than two weeks later, his body finally giving up in its long struggle against death.  And I mourned then, and mourn still, but it is a sorrow laced with hope.

I believe that, because Jesus’ resurrection is an embodied reality, I haven’t seen the last of John.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
— 1 Corinthians 15:55

A Man of the Land

John on our wedding day... in his signature overalls and wearing yellow to match my grandma, Helen. John Barnes died on Sunday, March 20 at 2:30 am, Central Time.  He died on a hospice bed in the living room of the house he’d occupied for nearly 20 years, surrounded by his wife and two of his four children.  He was 82 years old (b. December 19, 1927) and had lived in Mound City, Kansas his whole life.

He was, among many other things, my grandfather.

And he was, among many other things, a farmer.  A man of the Land.  I learned a lot about my grandpa in the process of his death, and in the next few posts, I want to reflect on what I learned about and from him in the last few weeks of his life.

John grew up farming with his father and brother, and after he married Helen in 1950, they struck out on their own.  Soon, John bought a lime truck and began hauling lime.  His days soon looked like this:

Wake up before dawn, take lime truck to quarry and start hauling at dawn.

Home around 7:00 pm.  Eat dinner.

Farm until early morning.

Sleep a few hours.

From the stories I heard, Grandpa started out with pretty much nothing.  He worked sometimes 20 hours per day and was at the mercy of the Earth.  Some years there were drought; some years they had less.

For a man like John Barnes, the amount of work he did was directly proportional to how much he had.

This is not the world in which we live today.  The world of Office Space in which we do just enough not to get fired.  We live in a world of salaries and benefits, a world in which we are told we ‘deserve’ a certain amount based on how much education we have or the persons we know but – very rarely – the quality of work we do.

For the vast majority of us, job reviews or performance evaluations are a joke.  For John, a poor evaluation was his children’s growling stomachs.

One thing I’ve always remembered about my grandfather was that he didn’t take what he didn’t earn.  No, that’s not right.  He was a very generous man, and he had received generosity often in his life (more on this in the next post).

He accepted gifts and generosity without expecting them.

He worked as hard as he could and never felt entitled to anything.

And that’s something I took away from my grandfather’s death.  Somehow we in my generation have developed a strong sense of entitlement.  We feel the Earth owes us something, that the mere fact of our existence entitles us to health and wealth.

Our culture has become increasingly disembodied, ever further detached from the Earth that was created to sustain us.  In the hours I spent with my grandpa just before and after his death, I was able to peek into a different world, a different culture.

“And to the man he said, “Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.  It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains.  By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
–Genesis 3:17-19