Another Atlanta Labor Day Weekend

Once again I’m in Atlanta, Georgia, where I will spend the weekend with thousands of my closest friends — at least 80 thousand, I believe — at Dragon Con, one of the largest science fiction and fantasy conventions in the world. This year I get to kick off the Filk Music Track’s concert series; I’m playing music twice for Art Show patrons; and I’m part of several other shows as well!

Here’s my schedule, at least as it exists right now:

Friday

  • 10:00 am: What is Filk? / Meet, Greet, Filk (Hyatt Hanover F/G)
  • 11:30 am: Gray Rinehart in Concert (Hyatt Hanover F/G) — mixing a few favorites from Distorted Vision and Truths and Lies and Make-Believe with some Dragon Con debuts!
  • 2:30 pm: Art Show music (Hyatt Grand Hall East)
  • 7:00 pm: Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow, with Alethea Kontis, Leanna Renee Hieber, Mari Mancusi, Diana Peterfreund, and Mikey Mason (Marriott A707)

Saturday

  • 10:00 am: Art Show music (Hyatt Grand Hall East)
  • 2:30 pm: Baen BooksTraveling Slide Show & Prize Patrol, with Toni Weisskopf, James Minz, Christopher Ruocchio, and many more (Hyatt Regency V)
  • 5:30 pm: Panel, “Tooting Your Own Horn: Marketing Yourself,” with John Hartness, Cecilia Dominic, Courtland D Lewis, Quincy J Allen, and Matthew Kressel (Hyatt Embassy A/B)
  • 7:00 pm: Peter S. Beagle & Authors Perform (Hyatt International North) … I’ll open this show, then head over to
  • 7:00 pm: World of Harry Potter Tribute Show, with Brobdingnagian Bards, Hawthorn & Holly, Nick Edelstein, Toucan Dubh, Foot Pound Force, Mikey Mason, and Misbehavin’ Maidens (Hyatt Hanover C/D/E)

On Sunday, my only official event is at 5:30 pm, when I’ll be giving a reading and special guest Nick Edelstein will play some music. If I can arrange it, I may have some other guests, too! That will be in the Hyatt’s Marietta Room.

As usual, when I’m not performing or working I’ll probably be attending concerts by my musical friends, or hanging out with my writerly friends or Baen Barflies. Or trying to catch a little bit of sleep!

If you’re in the area, I hope I get to say hello — but whatever you’ve got going on this weekend, I hope it goes well!

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The Lone Worker, the First Advance

(Another in the series of quotes to start the week.)

I haven’t posted a Monday quote in a while, but here goes.*

Today’s quote comes from Scottish biologist, pharmacologist, and Nobel Laureate Sir Alexander Fleming (6 August 1881 – 11 March 1955). Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — that’s the whole name of the thing — for the discovering the antibiotic penicillin in 1928. In addition to a knighthood granted in 1944, his other honors include being named one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th century” by Time magazine.

Considering that Fleming shared the Nobel Prize with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, I find it interesting that he’s quoted as saying,

It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought, and perception of an individual.

That interests me from the standpoint of creative work, and indeed all work. Even when we collaborate with people to produce something, the initial idea — the prime vision — always comes from one person. Rarely can one person nurture that idea from conception to birth and beyond, but the impetus is always a solo achievement.

We strike the spark of creativity in the deep primordial darkness of the mind, though we are not equally warmed or illuminated by it. The moments before we strike that spark may be suffocating or invigorating, and the mental space we inhabit may be silent or deafening, but neither family, friend, nor foe can join us in the confines of our cranium at the instant the idea strikes.


(Image: “Flint spark lighter being struck,” by Tim McCormack, on Wikimedia Commons.)

And the idea, like God saying, “Let there be,” is only the beginning.

Something to think about. Have a great week!

___
*I had actually intended to revive the “Monday Morning Quote” program, and to do so via live streaming video. Obviously that didn’t work out, since it’s now Monday afternoon and there’s no video here. C’est la vie.

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A Guideline for Religious Freedom

The Attorney General’s announcement earlier this week that the Justice Department would start a “Religious Liberty Task Force” has caused a bit of consternation, especially among people who fear that the US is heading toward some sort of theocracy or “dominionist” regime. The DoJ’s task force appears to be an internal exercise, but fear has a way of making things seem bigger and more threatening than perhaps they really are.

Beyond the bounds of the government, and on the day-to-day scale of dealing with people who may not share our beliefs, we don’t need a task force. We may need a better understanding that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means no law with respect to establishing a state religion, and that “no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means no law prohibiting people from practicing their religion according to its doctrines and dictates. But when it comes to “free exercise,” some broad guidelines might help the rest of us when it comes to exercising our religious liberty responsibly. That is, it might help if we had some reference by which to determine whether our religious freedom — i.e., our religious practice and the obligations we have taken on with respect to honoring and serving God — is infringing on the rights (or the freedoms) of others.

I find a useful guideline for religious freedom in what Paul the Apostle wrote to the church in Galatia about the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul listed nine things and claimed, “against these there is no law”

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-Control

It’s quite a lovely list, and a friend of mine once declared that each of those characteristics builds upon the other, starting with Self-Control. That is, without Self-Control we are unable (or at least unlikely) to exhibit much in the way of Gentleness; until we learn how to be gentle with others and with ourselves deep Faithfulness may elude us; without faith we may be “good enough” to get by, but consistent and unconditional Goodness will be beyond our reach; and so forth. But that’s not what I mean by a guideline for religious liberty.


(Image: Stained Glass, Christ Church Cathedral, High Street, Dublin; by Andreas F. Borchert, on Wikimedia Commons. Full description: “Right stained glass rose window in the east wall of the passage to the Synod Hall [now Dublinia], depicting in its centre the Lord as Good Shepherd along with the Fruit of the Spirit, namely Love [inscription in centre], Joy & Peace [top inscription], and in clockwise direction: Longsuffering, Faith, Gentleness, Goodness, Meekness, Temperance in reference to Galatians 5:22-23….”)

Because the First Amendment prevents our government from establishing a state religion and from prohibiting citizens from freely exercising their religion, I would approach it as follows: As long as your “free exercise” of your religious faith is demonstrated in the love you show to others, the joy you share, the peacefulness with which you live your life, how patient you are when people vex you, the kindness you show to those around you, the good that you do, the faithfulness you practice, how gently you treat others, and the self-control you exhibit, then by all means enjoy your religious freedom. Against those things, there is no law.

But: If you are unloving, if you cause despair, if you are unruly, impatient, unkind, evil, unfaithful, cruel, or undisciplined — and in practicing your religious freedom you bring harm where you should bring healing — then your religious freedom may (and possibly should) be limited.

No doubt some may bristle at my proposing a Christian scripture as a guideline for general religious liberty. (Some people bristle at anything Christian.) If anyone knows of a comparable passage of scripture from some other religious tradition that encapsulates how faith may be put into practice for the most benefit and least harm, I would certainly consider it. Barring that, I will be content to do my best to live up to what was taught the Galatians.

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What Would C.S. Lewis Think of WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS? (Part 2)

(I originally wrote this as an item in the Lorehaven Book Club Facebook group. Part one is found here.)

As I noted in part one, I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’s essay, “On Science Fiction,” in which he divided the field into a number of what he called “sub-species” and examined them in some depth. Last time I pointed out that my near-future science fiction novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds seems to fit into a couple of his categories. Unfortunately, Lewis asserts (referring specifically to H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon) that

The more plausible [the scientific basis of the story], the worse. That would merely invite interest in actual possibilities of reaching the Moon, an interest foreign to [Wells’s] story. Never mind how they got there; we are imagining what it would be like.

Since I tried hard to keep the science plausible in my story — taking a few liberties here and there, I admit — Lewis would apparently think that I had labored in vain. And it seems he would think the same with regard to my effort to build in believable characterization (emphasis added):

It is absurd to condemn [these stories] because they do not often display any deep or sensitive characterization. They oughtn’t to. It is a fault if they do…. Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his stories are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. If they had been more remarkable they would have wrecked their books.

In my defense, I’d say that the characters in my book are rather ordinary compared to today’s astronauts, many of whom have multiple advanced degrees and generally stellar credentials. But even if my characters themselves aren’t exactly commonplace, I tried to focus on the commonplace nature of their tasks: building things, repairing things, keeping things going.

Lewis says,

To tell how odd things struck odd people is to have an oddity too much: he who is to see strange sights must not himself be strange. He ought to be as nearly as possible Everyman or Anyman. Of course, we must not confuse slight or typical characterization with impossible or unconvincing characterization. Falsification of character will always spoil a story.

And there, I think I may have redeemed myself in Lewis’s eye. (At least, it would be nice if that were the case!)

I was, additionally, interested in another note that Lewis includes. Referring to the “novel of manners” (which Britannica.com defines as one that “re-creates a social world” and conveys “finely detailed observation of the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society”), Lewis writes — again with emphasis added:

We must not allow the novel of manners to give laws to all literature: let it rule its own domain. We must not listen to Pope’s maxim about the proper study of mankind. The proper study of man is everything. The proper study of man as artist is everything which gives a foothold to the imagination and the passions.

And, so far as I can tell, spaceflight — and the possibility of extending our reach to the Moon and beyond — definitely stirs the imagination and passion of at least some people! (Now, if more of them would find their way to my story, that would be great….)

Crescent Moon
(Image: “Crescent Moon,” by kloniwotski, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Finally (for my purpose here), before delving into other sub-species of science fiction that would not include my novel, Lewis warns,

… while I think this sort of science fiction legitimate, and capable of great virtues, it is not a kind which can endure copious production. It is only the first visit to the Moon or to Mars that is, for this purpose, any good. After each has been discovered in one or two stories (and turned out to be different in each) it becomes difficult to suspend our disbelief in favor of subsequent stories. However good they were they would kill each other by becoming numerous.

I wonder if the people who have asked me for a sequel would take that as an excuse for me not to do so.

Anyway, what do you think of all that? Is Lewis on to something?

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What Would C.S. Lewis Think of WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS? (Part 1)

(I originally wrote this as an item in the Lorehaven Book Club Facebook group.)

Have you read C.S. Lewis’s essay, “On Science Fiction”?

He divided the field into a number of “sub-species,” as he put it, and I think Walking on the Sea of Clouds would fit into a couple of them — though he admits that he wouldn’t have been in the audience for it.

My novel doesn’t fit into the first sub-species that Lewis identified, wherein

the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common. Against this huge backdrop he then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story.

Lewis didn’t think very highly of that kind of science fiction, and presumably would bemoan its popularity. (And it is quite popular! If I could think of a good story like that, I’d surely write it.) Anyway, he then wrote (emphasis added),

Having condemned that sub-species, I am glad to turn to another which I believe to be legitimate, though I have not the slightest taste for it myself, [which] might be called the fiction of Engineers. It is written by people who are primarily interested in space-travel, or in other undiscovered techniques, as real possibilities in the actual universe. They give us in imaginative form their guesses as to how the thing might be done….

That seems to describe my near-future technological drama, does it not?

C. S. Lewis
(Image: “C. S. Lewis,” by Levan Ramishvili, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Lewis continues,

I am too uneducated scientifically to criticize such stories on the mechanical side; and I am so completely out of sympathy with the projects they anticipate that I am incapable of criticizing them as stories…. But heaven forbid that I should regard the limitations of my sympathy as anything save a red light which warns me not to criticize at all. For all I know, these may be very good stories in their own kind.

That’s why I think Lewis just wouldn’t be in the audience for my story. And that’s okay! Every story isn’t for everyone. But he goes on (emphasis added):

I think it useful to distinguish from these Engineers’ Stories a third sub-species where the interest is, in a sense, scientific, but speculative. When we learn from the sciences the probable nature of places or conditions which no human being has experienced, there is, in normal men, an impulse to attempt to imagine them. Is any man such a dull clod that he can look at the Moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowded sky?

Ahem — Walking on the Sea of Clouds, anyone? It sure seems to fit that description.

But what do you think?

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Writing that Crosses the Spiritual Divide

(Cross-posted, with some light edits, from my 12 June 2018 guest post on the Speculative Faith blog.)

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of our own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well — egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.” Then the first issue of the Lorehaven online magazine included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head — and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s — including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes. Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?


My friend Keith Phillips (Colonel, USAF, Retired), with whom I served in the 4th Space Operations Squadron, showing off his copy of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories — even in technology-heavy hard science fiction — just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found — and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws, and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic.

And maybe those two contrasting reviews — too much Bible to some people, not that much to others — show that I struck the right balance after all.

If you’ve read the story, I’d love to know what you think! And if you haven’t read the story, then now you know a little more of what you might find in it.

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Angel Call

Sometimes you need an angel. Maybe a guardian angel, maybe an avenging angel. Maybe just someone who can step in to help in a touchy situation.

But how do you call that angel when you need them?

In the “harebrained scheme” department, I first thought about this a year or so ago, when I was at a local watering hole with some old office mates. Simply, I wondered whether bars, restaurants, and other “date night” kinds of places, or even stadiums, might install simple alert systems in their women’s restrooms. They might not rise to the level of being “panic buttons” — then again, they might.

Maybe these already exist in some places — I don’t go in the ladies’ rooms, so I wouldn’t know. But I only found a couple of references to restroom call buttons on the Interwebz, plus a recent article on panic buttons being given to housekeepers in Chicago hotels, so I get the impression that this isn’t a common accessory.

Anyway, the way I figured it, the button could send a discreet signal to the management (e.g., a light behind the bar at a pub, a security office in a stadium) so they could send someone to assess the situation and call for help, if needed. In general, it would be the same principle as the emergency telephone pylons installed on college campuses years ago, from which people can summon the campus police.


(Image from the Clemson University campus safety operations page.)

It seemed to me that something like that might be useful for ladies whose dates are becoming threatening, or who feel they’re being stalked. It might also be used by other women who see someone being abused but who aren’t prepared themselves for a confrontation.

It wouldn’t have to be limited to ladies’ rooms, but at the risk of being considered sexist I thought of it as primarily a ladies’ room addition because it seemed to me the need would be greater there than in a men’s room. Also, the potential problem of overuse and especially prank use (“crying wolf” or even trying to distract the management) would seem to be higher among men — and particularly young men.

Again, maybe this kind of “Angel Call” thing already exists. If not, I imagine it could be pretty simple to build and install — a one-to-one transmitter-to-receiver RF link would do the trick. Alternately, a wifi-and-app-based system, maybe like the “Rave Guardian” app, might be useful in large venues with multiple restrooms and a central security office (call it the “Staydium Safe” or somesuch).

Granted, I guess venues might not want to install something like that. Staff would have to be trained on how to deal with different possible situations — when to watch, when to speak, when to call the authorities, etc. — which could raise some liability issues. And since staff are there to do specific jobs, this kind of customer assistance would be “above and beyond.” Add in the difficulty of false reports, which might lead managers and workers to ignore the signals, and it might cause more problems than it solved.

Then again, it could be geared toward making certain nightspots “blind date safe.” In this age of Tindr and Match and eHarmony and whatnot, that might actually bring in a few customers.

I don’t know. It’s just another wacky idea.

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The Unsubtle Manipulation of Birthday Fundraisers

This past weekend, Facebook reminded me that my birthday is coming up* by suggesting that I set up a fundraiser for people to contribute to.

My answer to that is quite simple: No.

No, I will not ask you to donate to some cause on my birthday, even if it’s a cause I care deeply about and support myself. Why? Because I don’t think I’ve ever asked you to buy me a present for my birthday, so why would I ask you to spend money on my behalf for a charity?

The same goes for why I’m unlikely ever to support your birthday fundraiser, even if it’s a cause I might care about. Look at it this way: If I’m unlikely to buy you a birthday present, or even a birthday card — have I ever bought you a birthday present? — I’m not going to suddenly decide to spend money on your birthday just because you picked a charity fundraiser for it. And even if I usually get you a card or even a present, chances are I’d rather do that again.


(Image: “Charity,” by Nick Youngson, from Alpha Stock Images.)

I would never stop you from donating money somewhere for your birthday, or even from telling people that you’ve given your own money to help save the whales or save the seals or whatever. But this business of “here’s a cause that’s special to me, won’t you contribute to it on my behalf because it’s my birthday”? No, thank you.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s great that you want to support a charity. And if you have a cause that’s special to you, for which you’ve worked or to which you’ve donated throughout the year? Sure, tell me about it, and tell me why it’s important, and I might contribute. I might even help you recruit others to your cause. Not because it’s your birthday, but because it’s your cause. Tying it to your birthday just seems manipulative to me.

So I won’t do it. Even when it gets to be my birthday.

___
*Seems to come around once a year or so, and I’m okay with that.

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When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

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The Disciples Couldn’t Stay Gone

Consider this my Easter sermon….

As I usually do, I spent part of Holy Saturday yesterday thinking about the Disciples’ sadness and despair and fear after Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t think any of them actually expected or even dared to hope for the resurrection on the third day, and I expect that all of them were in shock to varying degrees. After all, scripture says that they “left him and fled,” which was, if not a fulfillment, at least a representation of Zechariah 13:6-7 (which Matthew tells us Jesus quoted at the Last Supper).

And if anyone asks him, “What are these wounds between your hands?” then he shall answer, “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

“Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, against the man who is My associate,” says the Lord of Hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered; I will turn My hand against the little ones….”

So yesterday I wondered what exactly the disciples did on that day of despair.

I imagine that some of them had relatives in Jerusalem or in the outlying areas, and sought refuge with them. Perhaps they went alone, or in twos and threes, but it’s unlikely they would have roamed or lodged together as a group that first day. I imagine that they stayed hidden for a time, and when it became clear they were not being pursued they became comfortable enough to venture out.

I imagine that when they ventured out they probably saw other Disciples here or there. I imagine them looking furtively around, perhaps afraid to signal or greet each other openly. They would recognize one another on sight, of course: not only because they had spent many months together and knew each other well, but because each of them would be marked by the hours he had spent in abject grief.

Resurrection
(Image: “Resurrection,” by fady habib, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But they couldn’t stay gone. They came back together.

We are not told who came back first, or what order they came back in. We are told that at one point Thomas had not joined them yet. But the main lesson, again, is that they could not stay away.

We, like the Disciples, may flee from certain troubles, may hide away for a time before we feel safe venturing out, and may glance about and over our shoulders to see if we’re being pursued. But if we fall away, may we find our way back as the Disciples did — and find the courage to live our faith in the open again.

Amen.

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