Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Bit From Alfred Bester

Friday afternoon, and everything that didn't get taken care of rolls down to here.  You all have a good weekend.  This is a science fiction classic, really one of the best in some ways:

"We're beyond easy childish things like crime and punishment," Dagenham added.

"No," Robin objected. "There must always be sin and forgiveness. We're never beyond that."

"Profit and loss, sin and forgiveness, idealism and realism," Foyle smiled. "You're all so sure, so simple, so single-minded. I'm the only one in doubt. Let's see how sure you really are. You'll give up Olivia, Presteign? To me, yes? Will you give her up to the law? She's a killer."

Presteign tried to rise, and then fell back in his chair.

"There must be forgiveness, Robin? Will you forgive Olivia Presteign? She murdered your mother and sisters." 

Robin turned ashen. Y'ang-Yeovil tried to protest. 

"The Outer Satellites don't have PyrE, Yeovil. Sheffield revealed that. Would you use it on them anyway? Will you turn my name into  common anathema . . - like Lynch and Boycott?"

Foyle turned to Jisbella. "Will your idealism take you back to Gouffre Mattel to serve out your sentence? And you, Dagenham, will you give her up? Let her go?"

He listened to the outcries and watched the confusion for a moment, bitter and constrained.

"Life is so simple," he said. "This decision is so simple, isn't it? Am I to respect Presteign's property rights? The welfare of the planets? Jisbella's ideals? Dagenham's realism? Robin's conscience? Press the button and watch the robot jump. But I'm not a robot. I'm a freak of the universe . . . a thinking animal. . . and I'm trying to see my way clear through this morass. Am I to turn PyrE over to the world and let it destroy itself? Am I to teach the world how to space-jaunte and let us spread our freak show from galaxy to galaxy through all the universe? What's the answer?"

The bartender robot hurled its mixing glass across the room with a resounding crash. In the amazed silence that followed, Dagenham grunted: "Damn! My radiation's disrupted your dolls again, Presteign."

"The answer is yes," the robot said, quite distinctly.

"What?" Foyle asked, taken aback.

"The answer to your question is yes." 

"Thank you," Foyle said.

"My pleasure, sir," the robot responded. "A man is a member of society first, and an individual second. You must go along with society, whether it chooses destruction or not."

"Completely haywire," Dagenham said impatiently. "Switch it off, Presteign."

"Wait," Foyle commanded. He looked at the beaming grin engraved in the steel robot face. "But society can be so stupid. So confused. You've witnessed this conference."

"Yes, sir, but you must teach, not dictate. You must teach society."

"To space-jaunte? Why? Why reach out to the stars and galaxies? What for?"

"Because you're alive, sir. You might as well ask: Why is life? Don't ask about it. Live it."

"Quite mad," Dagenham muttered.

"But fascinating," Y'ang-Yeovil murmured.

"There's got to be more to life than just living," Foyle said to the robot. 

"Then find it for yourself, sir. Don't ask the world to stop moving because you have doubts."

"Why can't we all move forward together?"

"Because you're all different. You're not lemmings. Some must lead, and hope that the rest will follow."

"Who leads?"

"The men who must. . . driven men, compelled men."

"Freak men."

"You're all freaks, sir. But you always have been freaks. Life is a freak. That's its hope and glory."

"Thank you very much."

"My pleasure, sir."

"You've saved the day."

"Always a lovely day somewhere, sir," the robot beamed. Then it fizzed, jangled, and collapsed.

Foyle turned on the others. "That thing's right," he said, "and you're wrong. Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world? Let the world make its own decisions. Who are we to keep secrets from the world? Let the world know and decide for itself.  Come to Old St. Pat's."

-- excerpt from The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ways and Means

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. --2 Samuel 14:14

David’s son, Absalom, had arranged the murder of his brother, Amnon, for the rape of his sister, Tamar.  For David, it must have all seemed an ugly sort of justice for his own adultery and the arranged murder of Uriah the Hittite.  I have said, and I have often heard it said, that God was punishing David for his sin.  In a sense that is correct, but I realized that whatever seed we sow is the same kind of crop we will bring in … God will not take away life.  Injustice and unrighteousness on my part will cascade through my life and impact those around me, including the innocent. 

David’s innocent, virgin daughter was subjected to violence, humiliation, and ruin because of the seeds of disobedience planted by the father.  If you keep a skunk into your house, you’ll get used to the smell after a while, but the stench, in reality, remains as sickening and disgusting as ever.  I speak from some personal experience, having seen my own faults and failures raised up as disobedience and suffering in the lives of our children. 

After the murder of Amnon, Absalom fled to the land of his mother’s people.  David missed him and was grieved by his absence, but he could not bring himself to send for him.  Justice called for Absalom’s death, and yet justice had been due Amnon, as well -- justice David himself should have executed.  Our friend Joab is concerned about the king’s state of mind and so arranges with a wise woman of Tekoa (later home of the fig-picking prophet, Amos) to present a dramatic story to David to help him see the situation more clearly and – as had been the case with the prophet Nathan’s parable of the little ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-14) – have David pronounce his own judgment upon himself. 

In the course of convincing the king of the justness of her plea, the woman renders this word of prophetic and revelatory significance with regard to the love and grace of God.  Humanity has failed God, disobeyed and been justly banished from His presence, yet God’s love for His children, those made in His image and likeness, remains undiminished.  From the moment of the Fall, the Lord has been in the process of devising means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. 

The banished one – it is personal and individual.  God doesn’t just bring people in.  He figures out a way to bring you back.  He figures out a way to bring me in.  The Way is Christ and the Cross, but we do not all reach the Place of the Skull by the same means or the same path.  Each one brings a different story of the grace that carries us to the foot of the Cross. 

Water spilled speaks, like spilt milk, of that which cannot be undone, the eggs that cannot be unscrambled, the past frozen, set in stone, becoming, often, monuments to our defiant iniquity, willful ignorance or mere whimsical stupidity.  As we say every so often, we cannot change the past, but we can change what the past means. 

I call myself a Christian.  Still, some days, it seems that I remain very far from where I need to be.  Wherever we, any of us, find ourselves, however foreign and hostile the locale, we can know that at this moment a messenger seeks us with the word that our banishment is over, and that we will be welcomed home.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Revelation Reflects

Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah -- Psalm 24:6

[I]t is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he [has] previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. – John Calvin, Institutes, Book One, Chapter 1

It's a little known fact among Star Wars insiders that Yoda learned English from reading a translation of The Institutes of the Christian ReligionConvinced, however, we are not.

We will never know ourselves until we know God.  We are not going to find the answer to who we are and why we are here by following the crowd.  Our parents may not be able to help us.  Education seems unlikely to enlighten us.  Sometimes, though, God does put someone in authority over us – father, mother, a teacher, coach, scout leader, or a pastor – to give us a word and direction from Him.  We would probably see it more if we were more open to the idea of the one-story universe, as expressed so well by Father Stephen.   

The mistake I have often made – and it’s not that I made it more early in my walk, I’m still doing it – is to seek the Lord primarily through the written revelation of the Bible.  For me, personally, studying the Bible is something I depend on to keep me more in tune -- poor instrument that I am.  While reading the Bible may be the best way for a lot of us to seek and to know Christ, it's not the only way to see Him. 

Prayer is another vital discipline in our search.  Some of our time in prayer should be given over to listening rather than speaking.  I sometimes get the feeling that God would like for me to shut up long enough for Him to answer one or two of my many questions, complaints and rants. 

We might expect to hear from the Lord in the priest’s homily or the teacher’s lesson, but we might be more surprised to find Him in a poem, a piece of music, a work of art, a scene in a movie, a science fiction novel, or some vista of nature.  My cousin’s late wife loved going to the Grand Canyon.  For her -- a simple, devout country Baptist woman, it revealed a facet of the Divine she didn’t often catch in her pastor’s Sunday sermons. 

God may disclose Himself to us in what some might consider the unlikeliest of ways.  I am convinced that He may be seen through the creatures He gives into our care.  I know we can see Him through our relationships, through achievements, failures, challenges, and trials in our lives, through the things we gain and the things we lose, through our hopes, dreams, desires, likes, and dislikes.  There is one thing we may be sure of, when we seek the Lord, He has promised that we will find Him.  You came near when I called on you; you said, Do not fear! (Lamentations 3:57); Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8); Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart (Psalm 119:2).

In finding Him, I will find my true self and my true destiny.  I know that I often reference this verse, but it so often seems to bear repeating, so, with a little emphasis:  Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Terminal Life

If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  -- 1 Corinthians 15:19

Christianity has a lot to offer people as a lifestyle.  It is potentially healthy, positive, and meaningful, providing peace and answers to difficult questions, comfort and strength in loss and adversity.  Christianity, especially when viewed at a somewhat superficial, exoteric level ought to be true.  Does it matter if it is true?  Some people seem to have concluded that it does not.  Some seem to think that being a Christian means the same as being a good person. 

Christianity didn’t necessarily teach righteousness to the West, but it did show us why we had defined goodness the way that we did.  In Christ, we saw why righteousness was right and that goodness had its foundation not in the shifting sands of earth but in the rock-solid truth of heaven.  From a worldly perspective, the Church is built upside down.    

The world says that what is good is what is good for us.  As long as we understood that the perfection for which we were aiming was not attainable in this life, even if people couldn’t quite bring themselves into the Christian fold, they didn’t get too far off base.  There was at least an implicit understanding that something was eternal and absolute, and the best way of living was to approximate that absolute within the cultural confines where we found ourselves. 

More and more, in the last couple of centuries, we have strayed further from that understanding until we are trying to base all of our behavior on what we like and what we think is good for us.  This leads many to reject any ideas of struggle.  We are “born” a certain way, and that is the way we are, and we and other people should just accept it.  When we do find a non-individual standard for behavior, it comes down to “tolerance” and “the greater good”.  Thus we are convinced to give up our freedoms, our property, our privacy, our morals and convictions so that “humanity” or “the country” or “people around the world” can benefit. 

Like the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision (Daniel 2:31-46), our golden-headed god stands precariously on feet cast of an unstable mixture of iron and clay.  Our thoughts, plans, dreams, and intentions are beautiful, bright and highly valued, but we have based our hopes on both the strength and frailties of human nature.  Iron is not easily broken itself and it has great utility, if not always beauty.  Nevertheless, it is prone to corrosion and corruption.  Clay speaks of pliability and suggestibility that hardens into something that will hold its shape until it is subjected to stress whereupon it fractures and shatters.  Combined, these materials form a pragmatic but extremely fragile pedestal on which to attempt to raise a civilization.   

If, when this life ends, we end, Christianity is a lie and a delusion.  There is no truth, and we find that all our self-denial and self-sacrifice has been offered to the service of yet another version of the same idol that Daniel described -- attractive and inspiring in theory, but, in reality, doomed to conflict, confusion, degradation and destruction.  

Here is where we must decide the road we will walk.  We can choose to follow the visible or the invisible, the eternal or the temporal, truth or lie.  If the truth is a lie as well, we are lost without hope.  

The truth is true.  Christ is risen.  Jesus is alive, and we are raised with Him and in Him.  Our faith assures us that our hope is well-placed and proves the unseen Absolute is no false image. 

Life here is the terminal -- that place from which we depart.  No one wants to live in the terminal.  We understand it is where we go to get where we are going.  Our journey through this earthly existence is only the beginning, the strait, narrow path that leads us to a new country and a new, everlasting life.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

What Pleases God

Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the LORD do what seems good to him. – 2 Samuel 10:12

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.  -- Psalm 115:3

The verse from Second Samuel is a statement by David’s general, Joab.  If I had been writing the Bible, I would probably have left Joab out or at least left out some of his contradictions and complexities.  As it is, the character fascinates me.  I may have said this before.  As best I can tell, Joab is kinfolk -- David’s nephew, the son of David’s sister Zeruiah (1 Chronicles 2:16).  Joab seems very often to know the will and ways of God better than David and is unfailingly loyal.  He is also vengeful, conniving, and ambitious.  He is both a courageous warrior and a pragmatic, cold-blooded politician. 

Here we see an example of Joab who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The Ammonites had foolishly provoked Israel to battle.  Joab when out to fight them only to find that they had multiplied their forces by hiring the Syrians, surrounding the army of Israel.  Rather than panic, Joab divided his forces, putting some of the army under command of his brother, Abishai, to attack the Ammonites while he, with a handpicked cadre, would assault the Syrians.  In the end, Joab was wise enough to reckon that “the battle is the Lord’s”. 

If God is going to do “all that He pleases”, what is our responsibility?  Why should we worry about anything?  We were pointing in the previous post that worry is needless.  Does that mean there is no part for us to play?  Moses held up his staff and the sea parted.  Did Moses do that?  Moses did his part.  Joshua and the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, blew their trumpets and the walls fell down.  Who knocked down those walls?  Joshua did his part.  Gideon and his three hundred broke their pitchers, blew their trumpets and shouted, and the Midianites fell into confusion, slaughtered one another and fled.  Gideon did his part.  David faced Goliath and slung a stone.  Joab and his army attacked. 

I trust God to provide for me, but I get up every morning and go to work.  If I wanted to find a job, I’d trust God, but I’d also go out and look for one.  God doing what he pleases and our doing what we can are not contradictory concepts.  God’s sovereignty does not interdict man’s free will and responsibility.  He did not create puppets but people, and what He really wants is for us to delight to do His will. 

I am afraid that one of the reasons Joab has such a strong appeal for me is that I am too much like him.  Loyalty and courage are the two virtues I admire almost more than any.  I'm actually pretty good at loyalty.  I could never call myself brave, but I would like to if I could.  Love, by contrast, seems almost self-serving because the one who loves gains so much joy from it.  Love ought to hurt – as it sometimes does.  People should -- more to the point, God should respect my self-sacrifice and unselfishness.  That seems right to me.  Nevertheless, I am wrong.  In “The Weight of Glory” Lewis says: 
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love.  … The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. 

It irks a part of me that God does not recognize Joab as the better man.  Joab is out doing what needs to be done, stabbing people and cutting throats.  David is nearly a sissy by comparison -- whining around about all the blood shed for his benefit, just about swooning before God.  He loved God, praised and served Him for the pure joy he found doing so.  To Joab, the Lord was someone to appease and, usually, obey rather than someone in whom to delight.  Yes, I am wrong.  

David was flawed, often weak and prone to mistakes of misplaced empathy, mercy, and compassion.  Yet, in this, he is more like God, closer to the heart of God than old canny, practical Joab me.