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Optimist Wager

Preface & Reader Response

The source of Christian joy is grace and sacrifice, not the collateral pain and sadness of living and dying.




by Jerry Murley

Tired of listening to broadcast idiocy in the waiting room of life? Follow me.

Allow me, for a moment, to paint a portrait. Rather than the simply earnest, even doleful, saccharine, and humorless, depictions in popular images hanging on walls throughout the world, I give you a joyful Jesus embracing mother earth and all mankind. This is a genuine Jesus, a complex, intelligent man of pervasive, magnanimous love.

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Christians of the world unite around one single, all-encompassing concept: Christ means joy. While I confess that there is pain and sadness in the story of Christ, and most certainly in the rise of Christianity – and that there has been much suffering inflicted at the farthest reaches of earth in a perverted interpretation of his name and teachings – I submit unreservedly that joy is the heart of the religion and that the first object of the faithful is to spread that joy.

When I was a boy, and into my teenage years, I sat in Sunday School and heard interpretations of the Bible and Christian teaching that drove me to distraction, especially when we discussed, as we often did, practical applications of Biblical teachings in modern life. I wanted to beseech my kind, old teachers and disengaged peers to further attend to the underlying message, which was invariably more tolerant than a cursory glance at an isolated phrase or verse would suggest: Is the coherent message conveyed in the Bible not larger? Do you not see what the teaching says in the example of Christ? Isn't the teaching supposed to apply to the thoughts and acts of our daily, non-Sunday-School lives? Doesn't the teaching lead to a joyful approach to living?

Nonetheless, I will stick with my Baptist upbringing, despite the obvious silliness and wickedness of some of its adherents in their public policy as a religious group. But mine is a different Christianity, in that I believe that it is my God-given right and responsibility to study and think critically about what I read, see, hear, and feel. It is my obligation as a child of God to change and grow throughout my life as new evidence is revealed in multiple concrete ways. Developing minds eventually start to synthesize the whole rather than fret over fragments.

One's childhood, home-grown religion is a deep-seated cultural expression and an ethical foundation which should not be carelessly disparaged or dispatched. Without the visceral bind of one's early stories and ceremonies, one risks a rootless, lukewarm philosophy without connection with one's people and place. The wholesome religion of youth should feed the stable conscience of age.

Still, religion by rote fumbles egregiously. Despite the chatter of tribe-thinkers, individual responsibility calls for singular deliberation. Despite the slack-tongued buffoonery of science rejecters, the theory of biological evolution does not detract from the miracle and joy of life. It makes sense of life and endows life with greater wonder.

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The primary sources of Christian joy are grace and sacrifice, not the collateral pain and sadness of living and dying. Though we know that the pain and sadness of Christ's biography magnify the central story of Christianity, we are hugely relieved that we are not personally expected to pay such an extreme price or experience such torment in all its fullness and inescapability. The joy of unearned, natural gifts and of sacrifice for others and the future is the essence of Christianity as I know it.

Sunshine is appreciated more because it follows night and is needed. One trusts that night will fall and pass when morning is renewed by sunlight. Light is most wonderful in relief. Joy is likewise a quality of difference. Deprivation, pain, sadness, and suffering are undeniable. Yet just as sunshine all day every day is not practical or desirable, all joy without a vivid sense of contrast is less joyful and less communicable.

Our joy comes from constant wonder at a splendidly diverse, complex, and improbable natural order. Our joy comes from the sacrifice of Christ, in all its many facets, which carries a promise of perpetual renewal. Constant joy issues from an abiding tale of renewal that follows suffering, sadness, and triumph as surely as sunshine follows dark. Imagery of the baby, and the young, vibrant life cruelly cut short, feeds the promise and keeps it fresh. The stories never age but become more beloved through age. There could not be a simpler, more comprehensible story, despite the stunning, logic-defying leaps of imagination required to hold it together.

Measured by the experience of average men and women, despite extreme exceptions, the existence of suffering is not sufficient reason to doubt or abandon joy. At the end of a personal journey, the last day for one is but a new day for many others. Things change. We will suffer. That is certain. Many will suffer unduly and disproportionately. That is evident from history and in our daily lives. I do not for a minute believe that God wills that suffering or prolongs it in any way. God plays by His rules. As evidenced by what is motivating and truthful in all the great religions and good and useful systems of thought and practice, God has imparted rules to mankind to interpret and manage for the benefit of mankind and all creation.

Undeserved bounty, spectacular sacrifice, and sunny renewal are not the only reasons for joy, but they are essential factors. Let us not understate the worth of an equally shining contribution to our lasting joy. Between the birth and death of Jesus – between the unearned gift of freshened innocence and harsh sacrifice – Jesus modeled two-millennia worth of more charitable ethical behavior, to which many of his devotees added in their human attempts to imitate the best example of humanity ever to walk the earth.

* * *

Though seldom a big reader, my Bible of choice is the King James Version. I cannot abide other translations. They are all squishy mawkishness and tiresome condemnations to me. If I am going to be manipulated, I want to be led by hard-edged masters from centuries ago rather than by storefront publishers laden with present-day agendas and a bland vocabulary. But critical thinking comes with the reading. After all it is a book translated by men. I am positive that if God worked it directly, He would have eliminated the confusion, redundancies, and inconsistencies, lessened the dread and hang-dog woe, and added more earthy parables and spicy begetting. I am certain that He would elide the damnation and other condemnatory proclivities of human scribes.

I like my Bible as I like my Constitution: it is bedrock and I don't like anyone fooling with it. It is alive and open to fair interpretation. Because it is never all revealing nor comprehensive, it is not dead nor literal in its every particular. Men transcribe the Word as they have the law and men are fallible – all of them, forever and ever. That thought, that depreciation of rigidity, is joyful. We sacrifice certainty for constant negotiation and surprise. Joy comes indirectly from the inevitable necessity to be kind, generous, compassionate, and merciful because we don't know what is absolutely God's will. Those who claim to know are but men, full of folly and falling short and prone to terrible error.

* * *

Belief is present even in people who favor rational thought and hard evidence. I should speak of what I think rather than what I believe when espousing my precepts and principles – the articles of my existence. After a leap of faith in early age sends one on a track, one is obliged to think about the causes and manifestations rather than simply believing them. Belief is provisional, a hypothesis. A thoughtful heart is a stronger and wiser foundation. Nevertheless, in my heart, I believe that good Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists – and perhaps some Republicans, too – will reap the same rewards and to the same degree as good Christians of every variety.

I don't believe in a deceitful god. I don't believe in a god who would plant the enormous evidence of science to trick mankind. Nor do I believe in a god who would grant the amazing gift of reason and science to grow in mankind for the purpose of seeding destruction. Rather, I think that abandonment of ample, useful evidence in clear view of all is a corrosive weakness of man.

The problem with Christianity is not Christ but wayward Christians. The same applies for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists – all the way down the line of religious practice, ancient and modern. God does not deceive – men do.

* * *

Let me offer a portion of my daily pray as a sample of the brand of joy to which I adhere:

Please lift all humanity physically, spiritually, mentally, morally, aesthetically, ethically, practically, politically, and socially. Please forgive us for our errors and weaknesses and help us to improve. Please help all humanity to be more loving and forgiving, tolerant, respectful, civil, generous, compassionate, merciful, joyful, playful, cooperative, creative, imaginative, faithful, free, responsible, honorable, courageous, strong, healthy, knowledgeable, understanding, of good judgment, wise, just, fair, and good. Please grant the grace, love, forgiveness, peace, and comfort of your salvation to all humanity.

* * *

My typical prayer asks for pardon and blessings for all mankind. Yet my heart does not bleed for evil. My joyful, open prayer permits me to ask at times that our drone missiles, if required for the protection of goodness, seek their targets more effectively without harming innocents. Nevertheless, I do not believe in a vengeful, nationalistic, or racial god. Evil and meanness bring on their own retribution. As for a devil – he can go straight to hell and watch Fox News for eternity. Fire is too warm for the likes of such anti-earthly, anti-humane beings. Unremitting torture is unthinkable even for a devilish soul. Interminable agony and exclusion have no place in a worthy, modern, living, universal religion, particularly one whose prevailing theme, asset, and appeal is joy backed by acceptance, wonder, grace, and renewal.

* * *

Well aware that my views could have had me roasted at a public gathering before a cheering throng a few centuries ago in my country, and a few days ago in some places abroad, I do not proclaim them casually, loudly, or proudly. We are not at days of peaceful – let alone respectful – coexistence, yet. We may never get there. But we appear to move by inches – when we try – in that starlit direction.

By the meager flashlight of a helpful usher in a dark theater, we see our way. Progressively clearer and sharper becomes our vision. My credo lends me clarity and goals – all that I need to see and live by. And thus it guides me like a bright star.


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