Russell and Duenes

Archive for May 2014

All in Los Angeles are Dead: Reflections on Memorial Day

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This piece was originally written by my colleague, Curt Russell, for Memorial Day, 2009.

I learned about Memorial Day, or as it was called years ago Decoration Day, as many American kids have.  My Grandfather, a World War II Navy veteran, would celebrate it by going to the local Navy Memorial in Cincinnati to remember the somberness of service to our country.  My Mom and Dad would take us to the local morning parade and then to the graves of our lost family members in the afternoon.  My teachers would tell me that Memorial Day is the day we celebrate the men (they often didn’t mention the women and children) who died so that we can be “free.”  In other words I was taught that Memorial Day actually means something.  And not just a day off of work and a day without junk mail.  I learned that it is a day to reflect on what American military servicemen (and servicewomen) have sacrificed so that I can raise my children in liberty.

In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes gave a speech about the significance of Memorial Day. He laid bare a stark sense of awe when he said: “But as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead… their ghosts sit at a table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.”  This is what strikes me heavily on Memorial Day; The sheer number of those who “come back and live with us.”  It may sound odd that I will now mention the current population of Los Angeles: 4 million people.  Surprisingly, this is also the approximate number of men, women and children who have died in service to America as a result of all U.S. Wars fought and the aftermath of its destruction.   What would happen if Los Angeles would simply lose its entire population to war or even to natural disaster?  What if one day we woke up and people were simply not there.  Would we grieve?  Would we remember those who lived there, both those we had known and those we did not?  If December 7th and September 11th taught us anything, it is that “when one falls, we all fall.”

Today, on Memorial Day, I also reflect on the “what could have been.”  What if America had not lost those in war we celebrate?  What would our nation be like?  I think it would be safe to guess that we would be one of the most populated countries on earth, if not the most populated.  Our American landscape would be drastically different.  Our ingenuity and resources altered for a vastly far removed America: one billion, two billion, or maybe three billion more people?  Memorial Day should also be a day when we remember them as well; those that never had a chance to be.  So today, let us reflect on Los Angeles and its 4 million strong-as a living remembrance of “the dead that come back and live with us” and let us also remember those that never had a chance to be.



Written by Michael Duenes

May 26, 2014 at 8:12 am

Posted in Duenes, Reflections, Russell

Heaven is free, but rewards are earned

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Our church has been in a sermon series addressing the issues of life after death. Today our pastor was fielding emailed questions from the congregation, and one set of questions was asking about rewards in heaven. Specifically, the questioners were a bit uneasy about this concept of rewards. After all, if going to heaven is a free gift from God, attained by faith in Christ alone, then on what basis can believers expect to gain rewards beyond the reward of merely “crossing the line” into heaven?

My pastor’s answer got me a bit fidgety. He said that while heaven is indeed a free gift, rewards are earned.

In other words, he inferred from the fact that believers receive rewards based on what they do, that their “doing” is earning rewards for them. Now I suppose there might be a charitable way of explaining the idea of “earning” so as to understand it as distinct from “meriting.” Yet I don’t recall there being any such explanation, and even were it forthcoming, the claim that heavenly rewards are earned is spiritually unhelpful at least and plain erroneous at worst. I think it leaves the average parishioner with the impression that there’s a two-phase Christian life: The free-gift phase received by faith, and then the earning rewards part after we’ve “made it in” to heaven. This would mean that we’re all laboring, like employees, to earn wages from our needy boss.

Yet what does the Scripture say? St. Paul tells us that God is “the Lord of heaven and earth” and “is not served by human hands as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24-25). Paul asks: “Who has given to God that He should repay?” (Rom.11:35). The obvious answer is: No one. For “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” (Rom. 11:36). Indeed, Paul goes further in Galatians 5:6, stating that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but rather, faith working itself out through love [counts for everything].” Paul is clear that none of the believer’s obedience, that is, his or her “doing,” has any tinge of earning to it, for Paul calls our proper obedience the “obedience of faith.” (Rom. 1:5). Indeed, “the righteous shall live by faith,” (Rom. 1:17) and “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” (Gal.2:20). That is, Paul’s life after conversion, his life whereby heavenly rewards are being stored up for him, is a life of faith, and a life of faith is antithetical to any kind of earning.

Hence, I strenuously disagree with the claim that Christian believers are earning anything, much less their heavenly rewards. The earning argument is spiritually harmful, in my view. It’s harmful in that it has a tendency to produce a sense that “getting to heaven” is good enough, thus leaving pastors with the task of trying to get congregations to “get to work” after their “free” salvation (which does not work too well as a motivation). Further, it creates a false sense that my rewards in heaven are based, in part, on my own earning effort, rather than the fact that even my rewards are a gift from God, “by grace through faith.” It may also leave me rather focused on myself, rather than on God’s power, as a sense of “earning” tends to do. Worst of all, it portrays God as though He needs something from me, for which I earn a reward; rather than a rightful sense that I am the one who “serves in the strength that God provides,” so that even my rewards come from the strength of His hand and providence alone.

What needs to be taught is that all of the believer’s “doing” in the Christian life is to be done “by faith,” just as his or her salvation was done. The works we do which bring reward are “the works of faith.” They earn nothing! As Daniel Fuller says: “Since the connection [between faith and resulting works] is inseparable, and genuine faith cannot but produce works, the Bible sometimes speaks of faith and sometimes of works when it speaks of the condition to be met in receiving the forgiveness of sins or subsequent blessings from God.” We are to seek rewards by trusting in God’s promises to do us good for all eternity, and then obeying His commands based on that trust.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the only thing required for salvation, and for the subsequent Christian life of sanctification and storing up treasure in heaven. God is the giver. We earn nothing. As Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. I labored harder than them all, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”


Written by Michael Duenes

May 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

The Beauty of Music: Ennio Morricone and Yo Yo Ma

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Every once in awhile I post a piece on here which I find so captivatingly beautiful that it reminds me of God’s transcendent beauty and creativity. This is one of those. Praise God for great composers and skilled musicians.


Written by Michael Duenes

May 24, 2014 at 7:20 am

Posted in Music

Do You See a Man Skilled in His Work?

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God has many admonitions for His people when it comes to work. He tells us to do our work diligently, as unto the Lord. He commands us to work hard, not only when our boss’s eyes are on us, but at all times under the gaze of God. We are to work wholeheartedly, with fear and trembling, with sincerity in our efforts, with the aim of pleasing Christ with our labors. We are to deny ourselves and take up our crosses for the benefit of those for whom we work, and for the greater community we seek to serve by our labors. All of this is revolutionary stuff if obeyed in the power of God’s Spirit.

Yet there is one particular Scripture that sticks in my mind as I contemplate going to work each day. God says: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” (Prov.22:29). The biblical proverbs are not iron-clad promises, of course; so it’s not the case that every single skilled worker will stand before kings. Yet the principle is generally true in the kind of world in which we live, namely, that those who attain skill and great competence in their work will be in high demand before the worldly VIP’s. Therefore, if we are wise, we should make it our aim, by the will and power of Christ, to achieve great skill, expertise, mastery, beauty and productivity in our work. This is true whether we “hate our job” or love it. It’s true whether you are flipping burgers or negotiating billion dollar corporate mergers or whatever. If you’re the man at the fryer at McDonalds, seek to do your frying with great skill and mastery.

Not only is there great joy in such a pursuit, but we may be confident that God will bring attention to such vocational skill as part of His means of redeeming the world through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Written by Michael Duenes

May 16, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Duenes, Work

No More Law School, Captain Phillips, On Offer from God

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With the bar exam still looming, I figured it would feel rather anti-climactic to finally get my law degree. However, that’s not been the case. I enjoyed most aspects of law school. The learning was stimulating, the opportunities to engage in a variety of work kept me interested, and I enjoyed my fellow students. Yet I truly feel relieved to have this behind me. I hated the final exams, and the longer one is in law school, the more one gets the feeling that it’s designed to be more like a hoop to jump through than an opportunity to consider the more important social, historical, and I guess, human aspects that attend to the practice of law. I’m so very grateful to God for getting me through, and I look forward to the road ahead as an attorney.

I saw Captain Phillips this past weekend and found it to be a wonderful film. Of course, Tom Hanks does a splendid job, but the film is well-acted as a whole. It’s layered, and causes one to reflect on the various layers without being preachy or moralistic. Further, it’s a compelling story, one which raises multiple emotions and questions as it goes, again, without making the questions obvious. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend it.

I was having a drink with a friend last night, and we were talking about what it means to be a Christian. We ended up talking about the question: What do we as Christians have to offer unbelievers? More profoundly, what exactly is on offer from God in the gospel? We agreed that there are many ways in which we don’t have good answers to that question, at least in our experience. Offering contemporary church life as we’ve experienced it didn’t sound all that compelling. We certainly don’t think that financial prosperity is on offer from God, at least not by way of any kind of promise. Yet when I thought about it on a basic level, I said: “What I can say to an unbeliever is this: God promises that He is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble, and you know, that’s true. I’ve experienced it. I don’t have a detailed description of the experience, but I know that God has been a strong help to me in difficult circumstances.'” God has made other promises which I would feel confident commending to others as true because I’ve experienced them as true. I think God offers many things besides this, but I know that I can genuinely start with this. May God give us more opportunities to commend Him in this way.


Written by Michael Duenes

May 15, 2014 at 11:26 am

Posted in Reflections