Monday, April 22, 2013

Damning is easy. Loving is hard

Damn you, Dzhokhar.

Your alleged evil acts cost innocent lives and maimed hundreds of unwary bystanders.

Your bloodless indifference to those you hurt leaves us reeling with rage.

Your casual pace as you walked away from the bomb about to explode on a crowded Boston street leaves us stunned with disbelief.

Your role in the senseless murder of one young cop and the near fatal wounding of another leaves us hungry for vengeance.

And as you lie recovering from your wounds in the tight security of a Boston hospital, we have other reasons to curse you.

The crimes you are accused of committing are so horrendous we find ourselves hating you, rejoicing in your suffering, loathing you as a sub-human beast, and praying you will die in pain and spend eternity tormented by the fires of hell.

Perhaps the worst thing you have done to the rest of us is that by making us hate you, you have imperiled our souls. In our hatred, we can no longer tell where your sins end and ours begin.

We don’t yet know what twisted religious delusion, if any, led to your actions.

But for the rest of us, our actions are subject to the judgment of the One who told us to love our enemies, pray for those who abuse us, and love one another as Jesus loved us.

Damn you, Dzhokhar.

You’re going to damn us all.

Perhaps the most unnerving thing about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the young man accused of being one of the Boston Marathon bombers, is the evidence that he – like us – is not pure evil. It would be easier if he were.

For more than a decade, Osama bin Laden smirked at us from flat screens and wanted posters, the perfect image of malevolent evil.

But in the hectic 48 hours between the exploded bombs and his arrest, Dzhokhar was harder to read and, in many ways, harder to hate.

His boyish face, shaggy hair, and soothing brown eyes reminded millions of parents of their own teenagers: awkward kids in baggy jackets and backwards baseball caps.

When the FBI broadcast Dzhokhar’s picture the night before his capture, some of his friends recognized him immediately but couldn’t believe it was he.

The Dzhokhar his friends knew was a kindly, light-hearted kid who attended teen parties and raised people’s spirits.

“He was a funny comical guy. He had me laughing a lot,” said Peter Tenzin, who co-captained the wrestling team with Dzhokhar, in an interview with CNN. “After wrestling practice, he would rather go down and spend time with kids with learning disabilities than relax and go home.”

According to Tenzin, Dzhokhar volunteered after school in a program for children with autism and Down Syndrome.

Some reports suggest Dzhokhar continued to mingle with his friends at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

Hours after the bombing, he sent his friends a message on his Twitter account: “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city. stay safe people.”

A more chilling tweet was sent later: “LOL those people are cooked.”

The investigation into Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s background will go on for some time, but at first glance he seems like a poster boy for dissociative identity disorder (DID).

“The crime doesn’t fit the memories,” one of his friends told reporters. On the one hand, Dzhokhar is described as a sweet, funny, caring kid; on the other hand, videos show him walking casually away from the site where in seconds his bomb will kill a child and two young women, and seriously injure more than a hundred.

What is going on?

Some say Dzhokhar was brainwashed by his accomplice and older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died fleeing from police and whose own past is being investigated.

Others say Dzhokhar was brainwashed by extremist religious passions.

That’s possible, but investigators should stop far short of blaming Dzhokhar’s irrational acts on Islam.

Sure, there are those who distort passages in the Qur’an and twist truths to reach the bizarre conclusion that Allah is a God of hatred, retribution, and violence.

But all religions have their twisted prophets, Christianity among them.

Before the Boston Marathon terrorists were identified, investigators wondered if the bombings were related to the twentieth anniversary of the Branch Davidian massacre on April 19, 1993, in which an FBI siege in Waco, Tex., led to the deaths of 76 men, women, and children, including the Davidian leader David Koresh.

Authorities accused Koresh of delusions of godlike grandeur that led to crimes of statutory rape and child abuse.

But there are other more garden variety forms of Christian crazy that include the Westboro Baptist Church that moved to picket the funerals of victims of the Boston Marathon bombing to publicize the tiny congregation’s virulent homophobia.

There are also Christians who burn Qur’ans to show their contempt of Islam, and there are Christians whose theology is so narrow and unbending that they believe anyone who doesn’t share their view is bound for hell. Misguided mission agencies spend fortunes to train and send missionaries to Christian nations to convert the Christians to their particular brand of Christianity.

It’s a diverting anthropological exercise to watch Baptists and Catholics blithely consign one another to hell.

The good news perhaps, is that they are no longer burning one another at the stake. But there is ample evidence that irrational jihadists have few delusions that can’t be matched by crazy Christians.

It’s too early to know whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is crazy, brainwashed,  theologically deluded, or all three. He has been convicted of no crime and, in a pre-PATRIOT Act world anyway, be must be considered innocent until he is.

Until then, he remains a problem for Christians who are trying to steer away from the brink of crazy and grasp the real meaning of the words of Jesus.

Dzhokhar’s alleged crimes are hateful and the results of his actions has caused death and suffering. It is all too easy to hate him.

But Jesus gave us a difficult assignment that is almost too heavy to bear.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:31-35)

More to the point, Jesus put it this way in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for whatever reason, did the persecuting.

But he also placed before us another challenge that may be just as painful: to love him and pray for him.

Damn you Dzhokhar?

Yes. Knowing a loving God is just, Dzhokhar’s damnation may be inevitable.

But damning him is not our job.

That would be too easy.

Loving him is hard, and this kid has done nothing to make it any easier.

Damn you, Dzhokhar.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bad News Paul

Some say the Apostle Paul was the “supreme betrayer of Jesus,” a subverter of the gospel, a “dysangelist” (bad news bearer).

Paul had, according to Nietzsche, “a genius for hatred.” Thomas Jefferson thought Paul was a “corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” And of course every Sunday school child knows the misogynistic S.O.B. said the churches should “permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (I  Timothy 2:11)

What a creep.

Years ago, when I edited a nationwide Baptist magazine, I used to wonder how Paul’s attitudes would fare in modern congregations. I imagined him being confronted by a delegation of angry women and drew a cartoon showing a defensive Paul asking, “Er, was it something I said?”

Over the years, I’ve observed the damage done by these strict interpretations of what Paul said and wrote. There was an odd situation in the generally open-minded conservative Christian college I attended.  The school’s woman president – an internationally known scholar with a Ph.D degree – did not teach boys over twelve in her local church Sunday school to keep faith with the apostle’s rules. 

That a woman responsible for the intellectual development of thousands of women and men, as well as for the hiring and firing of faculty members, would attend a church that prevented women from teaching or having authority over men – well, it seemed like a joke.

And in some Christian circles, Paul is a joke.

But one of the scripture passages set aside for the third Sunday in Easter is one of the most dramatic passages in the bible: the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus.

The bible tells us that the resurrected Jesus himself came to Paul and hired him as a missionary. That information suggests to us that Jesus saw something more in Paul than a joke. Perhaps this is the Sunday to give the tent maker of Tarsus the benefit of the doubt – and a second look.

Gary Wills, in his small but highly regarded What Paul Meant (Penguin Books, 2006)  offers several spirited defenses of the Apostle.

Perhaps the most pertinent, at least to Christians who deplore Paul’s disregard for women, is that he was framed.

Modern scholars applying scientific analysis are convinced Paul is not the author of the letter to Timothy, where misogyny runs rampant. Whoever wrote to Timothy, Wills contends, was expressing an encroaching patriarchal bias that did not exist in Paul’s head or in the Christian gatherings Paul knew.

But Paul is too important to modern Christians to dismiss him lightly. His epistles are the earliest writings we have about the ministry of Jesus Christ on earth. His letters were written long before three of the four canonical gospels we have in our bible. Only Paul writes about what Jesus said and did based on first hand encounters with the women and men who knew Jesus, ate with Jesus, walked with Jesus, listened to his sermons, watched him die on the cross and witnessed his resurrection.

All these people were long dead when the gospel writers gathered the aging threads of several oral traditions about Jesus and wrote them down. Yet when Paul quotes Jesus as he does in I Corinthians 11 (“This cup is the new bond, in my blood. Do the same, as you drink it, to keep my memory”), he is quoting people who actually heard the words from Jesus’ lips.

But Paul is also unique because he is the only writer in the bible who writes first-hand about his personal engagements with Jesus. All other writers were quoting stories that had been passed on several generations earlier.

Certainly there is no more gripping story in Acts than the conversion of Saul, the original son of vipers, the pharisaical hit man who plotted to arrest and execute Christians. On his way to Damascus with a warrant to arrest Christians,
he is suddenly blinded by a bright light and deafened by a heavenly voice that asks, in effect, what the hell are you doing?

Moving toward a dramatic climax, Saul wanders blindly for three days until he is taken into the Christian household of Ananias, where he is baptized into the faith. Soon Saul – now Paul – is in the synagogues, preaching Jesus as “the Son of God.”

It’s a great story – theological theater as some scholars have described it – but did it really happen? Paul, one of the most prolific writers of the bible, never mentioned the Damascus road story. He doesn’t even mention is co-star, Ananias.

Paul puts his meeting with Jesus in a different context: not as a blinding intervention, but as a meeting similar to the appearances Jesus made to his disciples after his resurrection.

For I handed in to you as of first importance what I in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures , and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day … he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of who are still alive … Last of all … he appeared also to me.” (I Corinthians 15:3-8)

The resurrection of Jesus is “of first importance” to Paul, and he presses this testimony in all he says and writes. He is, as Wills points out, the only witness to the resurrected Christ who attempts to describe what the resurrected body is like.

But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.  (I Corinthians 15:35-49)

These are more than poetic words: the passage is a powerful testimony by one who has actually seen the resurrected body of Christ. It is the only first-hand eyewitness account we have.

Paul’s personal meetings with Jesus, as well as his interaction with persons who knew Jesus on earth, also lead him to the core of Jesus’ message: Love.

Garry Wills response to critics who say Paul distorted Jesus’ message is that “Paul says the essence if the law is love, and Jesus said the same.”

Paul “surely grasped the key to what Jesus taught during his life on earth,” Wills writes. “Most would agree that the point of the Sermon in the Mount, of the olden Rule, of the frequent commands to love unstintingly was deeply understood by the man who could write this:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  (I Corinthians 13:1-13)
But, history asks, did Paul’s love expand to include equally both genders?

“Paul believed in women’s basic equality with men,” Wills insists. “He does not deserve the primary credit for this attitude. It was given to him in the practice of the Diaspora gatherings he first joined, as in the baptismal formula whose hymn he records: ‘Baptized into Messiah you are clothed in Messiah, so that there us no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, men and woman, but all are one, are the same in Messiah Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:26-28).

Wills goes on to name the women leaders of the early church who he regarded as his equal: Junia, Prisca, Phoebe, and Chloe.

Still, even Paul’s defenders like Wills have to acknowledge that in I Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul told women to shut up.

But Wills insists Paul was framed by some unknown patriarchal forger.

“Earlier in this very letter,” Wills writes, “Paul had told women to cover their heads when speaking up and prophesying. Paul can be accused of contradicting himself, but not so blatantly in the confines of a single document. This fact has led a great many scholars to condemn this passage as an interpolation, added to the letter when the policy of the letter to Timothy had been adopted. The pseudo-Paul has intruded upon real Paul.”

Alas, separating pseudo-Paul from the real Paul is difficult and millions of Paul’s critics will remain convinced that he shared the Pharisaical opinion that women were inferior to men.

Perhaps the best argument against that is that Paul met the resurrected Jesus and heard his message of love for all people.

It is Paul's first-hand reporting of these encounters that make him an essential faith companion for all of us. And Paul’s fundamental message to us is the one he shares with Jesus and that is passed along to each of us as the foundation of faith

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  (I Corinthians 13:13)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rainbow Acres

NOTE: The following feature article was written on behalf of Rainbow Acres, a faith-based community for adults with developmental disabilities. It has been shared with media outlets across the United States. All readers are welcomed to re-use it as they wish.

American Baptist Home Mission Societies gift
to Rainbow Acres makes the sun shine brighter for ranchers and their families

By Philip E. Jenks

Camp Verde, Ariz., April 10, 2013 – Pauline Guthrie, who once faced the loss of an arm because doctors thought a woman with developmental disabilities would never miss it, is grateful for each day she lives at Rainbow Acres.

Also grateful is Tony Schisler, a man with developmental disabilities in his seventies who friends say “bloomed” when he moved to Rainbow Acres.

So, too, is John Fleck, a Rainbow Acres rancher who lives “a full, rich life” since he joined the community in 1984.

What the three ranchers have in common is that they are enjoying the benefits of a recent grant from American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) that supports their residency at Rainbow Acres, a faith-based ranch style community that offers “homes with heart” for adults with developmental disabilities.

The ranch received a $50,000 grant late last year to help support the independent, non-profit facility that provides a home for more than 90 ranchers.

Rainbow Acres was founded in 1974 by an American Baptist minister, the Rev. Ralph Showers, who told ranchers, “You are created just the way God wants you to be.”

The Rev. Gary W. Wagner, an American Baptist Minister who has been president of Rainbow Acres since 1996, said the $50,000 grant from American Baptist Home Mission Societies, has had a “transformative effect” on the ranch.

The grant enhances the program and services of RainbowAcres, which are built around a “whole life concept,” Wagner says.

“It’s a Christian community with heart that empowers persons with developmental disabilities to live life to the fullest, with dignity and purpose.”

For ranchers like Pauline Guthrie, it is no exaggeration to claim Rainbow Acres has offered a life giving and life saving community.

“People have no clue how people like Pauline will be treated if there’s not someone there to be an advocate,” says Pauline’s sister Jean Kennedy of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Well-intentioned people may laugh at developmentally disabled persons or stare at them in such a way that makes them feel inferior and scorned. Even the staff of a hospital thought Pauline didn’t warrant the same level of treatment as other patients.

A car struck Pauline as she walked along a crowded street and she was rushed to an emergency room with a shattered arm.

“Pauline was told they were going to have to do emergency surgery and they needed a surgeon,” her sister Jean recalls.

“When they found out she was disabled, it became, no bed, she’s retarded, she won’t need it, amputate the arm.”

Jean immediately contacted a local legislator, who intervened. “The Lord was good,” she says. “Pauline had the surgery at Beverly Hills Cedar Sinai Hospital, performed by a level-5 trauma surgeon.”

After her hospital experience, Jean began looking for help in caring for Pauline. “I have no other family to take her,” she says. “A place like Rainbow offers a Christian, caring environment that really says all people have worth. And I have seen the other side.”

Pauline is supported in part by the grant from American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

When Jean learned about the grant, she says, “I spent the next several hours thanking God and crying tears of gratitude and praise.”

In a letter to Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III, executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Jean wrote, “I cannot in one brief note let you know the blessing that this is in our lives. Pauline has lived a very difficult life. She has often been taken advantage of, suffered abuse, been mocked and misunderstood.”

Rainbow Acres has opened doors to a new life, Jean said recently.

“What I see in Pauline is that she has grown so much since she has been at Rainbow,” Jean says. “She’s a 60 year old woman, she has grown personally, more confident, more talkative. She sang a solo at a banquet in front of 500 people. I was so amazed I kept saying to myself, you’ve got to be kidding!”

Tony Schisler, in his mid-70s, is another Rainbow Acresrancher whose life has been enhanced by the Home Mission Societies Grant.

“Tony spent most of his life, up until being accepted at Rainbow Acres, in the company of elderly family members and did not have much socialization,” says his guardian, Elaine Vallely of Cornville, Ariz.

“He has bloomed at Rainbow Acres,” says Elaine. “He is so independent now, as if a whole new person has come out. He also enjoys singing in church and anything musical. The ABHS grant was greatly appreciated and helps to let me support these special trips for this special person.”

Margie Beach, director of communication and community relations at Rainbow Acres, knows all the ranchers well and has enjoyed watching Tony flourish at the ranch.

“Tony loves participating in the Rancher Choir and enjoys activities with others here,” Margie says. “Every time I ask if he liked lunch, he grins and answers with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ His mornings in the Learning Center keep him engaged and his brain challenged just to the right degree.”

Tony’s cousin, who lives nearby and comes to public events at the ranch, says she is thrilled to see Tony so happy, after being so isolated for most of his life. He was well cared for, but very much alone, Margie reports.

John Fleck, known to his friends as “J.J.”, is another rancher who benefits from the Home Mission Societies’ generosity.

“He has had a full rich life due to Rainbow Acres,”according to his second cousin and guardian, Karen McKissick, of Naperville, Ill.

John’s parents are both deceased. “They both worried so for John’s care, and I believe they would be so comforted by the life provided John through Rainbow Acres,” says Karen.

The Home Mission Societies grant “has warmed our hearts and eased our pain,” Karen says. “John has a full, rich life due to Rainbow Acres. They know him well and adjust for his needs. John goes to chapel daily and church on Sundays. He loves to sing and swim.”

John “has slowed down a great deal,” Karen reports,“but he still enjoys his walks around the ranch. John starts the day in a caring, homelike setting.”

Each year, ABHMS distributes money set aside through the Olive K. Thomas Fund specifically for maintenance of homes for the elderly;Rainbow Acres’ clients range in age into their 80s.

“We’ve been seeking to use these funds to aid the most underserved of our population in general and the American Baptist family specifically. I feel particularly pleased about how these designated funds are aiding the elderly with developmental disabilities,” says Home Mission Society Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins.
For additional information about Rainbow Acres, contact Margie Beach,Director of Communication and Community Relations, 928-567-5231; or visit

For additional information about the American Baptist Home Mission Society, contact Ms. Susan Gottshall, Associate Executive Director, Communications, 800-222-3872 x2119; or visit

Photos by Margie Beach

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Is that you Jesus?

Several times a week at the grocery store, I pass a fundraising table for a Christian camp I’ve never heard of. The sign invites passersby to “Help Change Lives”.

I always smile benevolently at the middle-aged man behind the table.

“Care to help?” he asks.

“No thanks,” I reply.

“Okay. Have a blessed day.”

This happens often, though not so often that the guy recognizes me as the smiling old dude who never gives a cent.

But to be perfectly honest, the word “Christian” in the camp’s name raises questions. There’s no time to vet the place while buying bread and milk.

The man standing behind the collection box looks nice enough, and it may well be that the camp serves children of all ethnicities and social classes and encourages them to imitate Jesus’ example of loving and accepting everyone.

On the other hand, the place could be a project of the insanely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, or a training ground for an evangelical mission agency that sends missionaries to Ireland to convert the Christians to Christianity.

So doubt paralyzes my impulse to grab my wallet.

It’s sad, especially on the Sunday when millions will read about the nagging doubts of the Apostle Thomas, that the word “Christian” invokes distrust and doubt.

Last week I joined Martha and Katie, my spouse and daughter, at our favorite restaurant. After we were seated, I excused myself and went to the bathroom to wash my hands.

Inside, I was startled to see a tall man bent over the sink. He was scrubbing his face with an excess of hand soap while crooning “Glamorous” in a fulsome, falsetto voice.

I turned to leave the room but the man caught sight of me.

“Sir, excuse me,” he said. He gestured grandly toward the sink and stepped aside. “After you,” he said as soapy water drizzled into his beard.

“No,” I said, “Please finish up.”

The man pulled small scraps of paper towel out of a miserly dispenser and dabbed at his face.

“I got time,” he said. “Waiting don’t bother me. I been in prison three years. Just got out.”

I glanced at the bathroom door and stepped to the sink. I let a little water trickle in my hands and quickly shook it off.

“Are you heading home?” I asked.

“I am,” he said. “As soon as I can get the bus.”

“You must be a happy man.”

“Thinking about getting out is all that kept me going.”

I usually don’t offer benedictions in public restrooms, but the guy seemed so joyful.

“God bless you,” I said. “I hope it all goes well from here on.”

“God bless your kind self,” he said.

He continued in the same genial vein.

“Spent all my money on the bus ticket,” he said. “Haven’t eaten today. Can you help me out?”

I tend to ignore requests like that when I don’t have time to think them over.  My hesitation probably stems from conflicting genes I inherited from my paternal grandparents. During the Great Depression, Grandma was famous for doling out samples of her canned meat to starving hobos, while Grandpa was known to defend his larder with a .45 revolver.

I inherited more of Grandpa’s tightness than Grandma’s generosity, but Grandpa never negotiated with an ex-con in a restaurant bathroom.

“Don’t have a lot,” I mumbled, reaching for my wallet. I pulled out three crisp dollar bills and gave them to the man.

His eyes crinkled as he grinned.

“God bless you more,” he said, almost laughing. He clutched the money to his chest. “God bless you, man.”

I smiled and backed slowly out of the bathroom.

Martha and Katie were still waiting for our food when I took my seat. I glanced back at the bathroom and saw the man had also exited and was pressing the three dollar bills on the counter. The waiter nodded and brought him a basket of bread. The man stuffed a bread stick into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully as he packed the rest of the bread into his jacket pocket and walked out of the restaurant.

Soon our food was delivered. I leaned back in my chair and mused how I would tell this interesting story to Martha and Katie. I knew I had time to think about it because Martha was staring intently at her iPhone and Katie was absorbed by a large bowl of macaroni and cheese.

Suddenly I had an epiphany, or thought I did.

“I wonder,” I said, picking up my fork, “if I just talked with Jesus.”

Martha glanced at me quizzically.

The passage from Matthew was running through my head.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-39)

Actually, I was fretting about the more negative passage:

“Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)

Jesus, I said to myself. I should have sprung for more than three bucks.

I took some solace in the fact that the man seemed satisfied by my grudging largess.

And of course there’s always a chance the man was just who he said he was – not Jesus but a recently paroled convict looking for a meal as he waited for the bus home.

But it doesn’t make any difference because Jesus made it plain that we should treat convicts and strangers as if they were him.

That’s a helpful thing to keep in mind, not only because otherwise we’d treat convicts and many strangers with contempt, but also because it’s not always easy to recognize Jesus.

Immediately after his resurrection, Jesus’ closest friends failed to identify him. Mary Magdalene, the first to arrive at his empty tomb, didn’t realize Jesus was the man talking to her until he called her name.

In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus joins two of his disciples on a walk to Emmaus, but Luke reports “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (v.16). Mark reports, a bit mysteriously, that Jesus appeared to them “in another form” (Mark 16:12) which, as author Garry Wills writes in What Jesus Meant, is “hard to interpret.”

“Jesus appeared in numinous form (Wills writes) … his body was not the earthly body any more, but one both outside time and space and affecting time and space.”

The resurrected body of Christ could pass through walls and, ultimately, ascend into heaven, but Jesus could also allow Thomas to touch his wounds of crucifixion. Even more amazing, Jesus could eat with his companions.

From our 21st century vantage point, where digital media create virtual realities on plasma screens, the sensationalism of the resurrection begins to dim. Jesus’ strange post-death appearances, which galvanized his contemporaries into the fiery evangelical movement that transformed the world, no longer excites many modern minds. The figure in the Easter stories makes us think of a benign zombie or, perhaps, an exhilarating Elvis sighting.

Even for lifelong mystics and dedicated theologians, the resurrection of a dead Jesus is hard to accept. I have known Christian educators who admitted they doubted it.

Over the years millions have found themselves repeating Thomas’s disbelief:

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

In our age of secular skepticism, our doubts go deeper than Thomas’s. When Thomas touched the wounds of Jesus, he believed. If Jesus appeared to a skeptic today, he would likely be dismissed as a holographic illusion.

And so, on the second Sunday of Easter, many of us are – like Thomas – paralyzed by doubt.

The challenge, according to Presbyterian writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, is not to stop doubting but to free ourselves of doubt’s paralysis.

“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith,” Buechner wrote. “They keep it awake and moving.”

The greatest problem many skeptics face is that neither their faith nor their doubts are alive and moving.

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep,” Buechner wrote in Wishful Thinking.

The same is true of the resurrection of Jesus. For some, the declaration, “the Lord is risen” sends hearts soaring; for others, the phrase invokes skepticism and doubt. Whether we accept it or reject it, if we no longer struggle with the notion, our souls have fallen asleep.

Keeping our souls awake requires constant interaction with the resurrected Jesus.

But how will we know him when we see him? Even his contemporaries didn’t know who he was when they encountered their resurrected leader on the road or in their homes. Two millennia later, in an age of secularism and doubt, how can we possibly recognize him?

Fortunately, Jesus made it easy for us. He is present, he declared, whenever we mingle with our fellow humans.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me some clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36; 40b)

Thomas doubted the presence of Jesus and all of us live through long periods of questioning and distrust.

But the bottom line, Jesus told us, is that he never left us. He is with us when we least suspect it.

Which brings me back to my earlier question: was the ex-con I encountered in the restroom of a local restaurant Jesus?

I have the answer to that on the highest authority. Of course he was.

No doubt.