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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dare Base

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:5b-7

We talked about being content in what we have, yet worry and doubt may still dog us as we consider that what we have may be insufficient or may be taken from us. Even Paul's assurance that the Lord is near may not quiet our worries. We may know God watches. The question is: Will He intervene on our behalf?

There are two returns from that query. The first is what do we mean by "on our behalf"? If we think somehow that we will be exempt from trials we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. It would be akin to the recruit thinking he might somehow be exempt from PT in boot camp. It's why we are here, to be trained and equipped for the Real Adventure™.

But the second, more positive reply is simply, Yes. God dwells with us in peace, and He will maintain that peace as a fortress around the heart and the mind. The image that comes to me from this passage is of a child learning to walk and explore the world, adventurous and bold — so long as he knows his mother is near at hand. He runs back to her frequently to touch her and reassure himself that she has not left him on his own. He cannot yet begin to imagine the force that would be necessary to drag her away. Our prayers, in this context, really are a means of "touching base" with God, tagging up before we take off to do those things that are needful.

To grasp how fully God is invested in us, it is important to remember that He is in a covenant relationship with us. This new covenant is established by the Father (not by us) in the very lifeblood of the Son (Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25, 2 Corinthians 3:6). The biblical covenant is not a light thing. When God made a covenant with Abraham (see Genesis 15), Abraham took sacrificial animals, killed them and cut them in half, laying the two halves out opposite one another. After darkness fell, Abraham saw "a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces" (v.17). In a way, it is a picture of the Incarnation, for as He passed among the dissected carcasses, He was, we might say, "in meat".

When we enter into covenant with God through Jesus, He so identifies with us that He takes on our weaknesses. He takes on my frailty and your frailty as His own. He even takes on our death upon Himself. In turn He offers us identification with Him. He takes our death; we take His life. He allows you and me to take on His strength, to live His life in His power and with His resources. He walked "in meat" so we may walk "in Spirit". If we need a clue, this is why faith is so important. We are asked, in light of all that Christ has done, to believe that it was done on our behalf to create this relationship that is both spiritual and physical, both loving and legal – you know, sort of like marriage.

As an aside, our loss of faith in the symbols and rituals of tradition are not political tragedies so much as spiritual ones. Those who reject any reality except the purely physical have no reason to cling to forms and ceremonies, though they may experience a vague sense of unease as the forms are cast aside. They attribute this unease to inculcation by society and religion, often rebelling against rituals in the name of reason. They consider rituals as artifacts of the early attempts of humans to work together in groups for the mutual good.

I see a ritual like marriage as a dramatic presentation of a spiritual truth which required a material enactment to allow it to be brought into language. The spiritual could not go immediately into words without being made concrete in some way. In the beginning was the Word, but the Word had to be made flesh in order for us to begin to understand it. Marriage is making flesh the covenant between God and His people.

Through the rent flesh of the Christ, our Father has opened the way into His presence. He invites us to come, to speak to Him about our anxieties, to touch Him and to feel His hand upon us. We can hear Him say, “I’ll be right here. Run.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Crabgrass Monologue

Not that in respect of want I say it, for I did learn in the things in which I am -- to be content — Philippian 4:11

Charles Spurgeon, in talking about Philippians 4:11, quotes a proverb: Ill weeds grow apace. Discontent is like dandelions. Complaints are like crabgrass. If we are going to have a decent lawn or garden, it requires cultivation. We have to work to have beautiful flowers or fruits and vegetables.

Paul says, I did learn ... to be content. To be content is to be contained. The desires of the contented are contained by what they already have. Not everyone is, or should be, content at the same level, but we can all learn to create boundaries for our desires and to live within the restraints of those fences.

I think it was probably back in the late 1800's that a young man left the Ozarks and made his way to Idaho. He herded sheep for several years and saved all he possibly could of his wages. He wore the same pair of shoes the entire time, wiring the soles to the uppers as the stitching gave way. According to the legend, when he returned from the West, he left what remained of that pair of shoes, and someone put them in the window of a shop. He used the money he had saved to buy a decent little farm. Then he bought another, and another. When he was asked if he planned to buy up all the farms around there, he replied, "No, I just want the ones that join me." He was not a contained man.

It is also evident that our frugal shepherd was discontent in the horizontal dimension. The same Paul who was contained in a Roman prison had, in the same letter to his friends in Philippi and only a few sentences prior, said:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus -- (Philippians 3:12-14).
Though always readily content with his material circumstances, Paul was never restrained in grasping for more of Christ. And Christ, it seems, had all of Paul.

Probably the best way to be content these days is not to watch television or listen to that old-fashioned thing out of which advertisements constantly pour. Nor should we read magazines, especially the paper copies – if they still exist. I remember when Outdoor Life and Sports Afield were thick with stories and tales of adventure in the woods and plains and upon the waters. The last I saw of them they held no more virtue than Bass Pro flyers. Not that it matters, for Jack O’Connor and Robert Ruark have gone on that last longhunt, and barbarians hold the presses.

I suspect those who have learned to contain their desires must wonder at the accumulation and consumption that grips the rest of us. We compete with one another to have the latest or the most expensive or the most unique. We want things because of surface qualities – colors or shapes or styles. We buy things because they are “on sale”. There is nothing evil or sinful about having things. There is nothing sinful in enjoying shopping or buying gear or tools. God knows I have a shelf full of knives that alone would damn me to hell if that were the case. God asks only that we not invest love in the material. Have things; use things; do not grasp for the material or strive for it.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Busy Signal

I keep trying to get half an hour or so to write a post, but stuff keeps happening. I've worked several very long days since the first of the month. In addition, my wife's mother has deteriorated rapidly since the passing of her son last fall, and she requires more of our attention every day.

I'd always heard about people who endured some trauma that caused their hair to turn white overnight. It is said that some people die of a broken heart. I never thought much about the truth of those things until I saw what happened to my mother-in-law. Her failure of health could not have been more sudden and extreme if she had fallen off a cliff. Her heart is broken, and her mind is broken. Her body is not far behind. It's been three months, and I doubt that it will be three more.

Right now, it's my wife that needs prayer. She has been the caregiver for the last several years. For most of that time, her mother has enjoyed remarkably good mental and physical health for a person in her eighties. That's no longer the case. She can no longer follow simple instructions. She has trouble feeding herself or going to the bathroom. She has had several rather unpleasant episodes as a result. It's no fun cleaning up, but we do what we have to do.

All that's hard, but it's not the worst. What's really hard is that, in a way, she's already gone. We don't know this person. True, she looks like someone we know. She still has the same name, even if it takes her a while to remember it. But that's where the commonality ends.

We are so much more than our bodies and brains. I never doubted it, and here is certainty. Something essential to who she was has gone. And what follows?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Just Add Wonder

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth — Matthew 5:5

A sentiment of superiority keeps us cool and practical; the mere facts would make our knees knock under as with religious fear. — G.K. Chesterton from Heretics

I wonder, in reading through Heretics, about whom a Chesterton would write today. Mark Steyn, he of the sons of the prophets, speaks most often on politicians and popular culture figures — as if there is now any difference between politics and pop culture, which may be a good part of our problem. Chesterton safaried on an intellectual savannah trod by Shaws, Wells, and Orwells, to name but a few. I'm afraid he would hardly waste a round on the lock-step lemmings, swarming rodents, and shambling opossums that have inherited the plain today. Perhaps there are no Chestertons because there is no quarry worthy of such hunters. Did Nimrod stop to weep for himself when he saw the end of Smilodon?

Truly the old, bold socialists, eugenicists, and strong men who stalked under the noon sun are gone, replaced by careful and cowardly creatures of the night that scurry from shadow to shadow lest we see their true form. Apart from the insulated and the tenured like Peter Singer, few of the "pro-choice" advocates in our day admit that they long for a better race of men through more selective breeding, and, by the way, far fewer men for the most part. They have learned the chameleon trick of taking on the surrounding colors, especially the color of freedom, as they lurk and wait to strike. It's just me probably, but I'd rather take my chances face to face with the grinning tiger of the day than be struck by an ambushing death adder.

I can't say as I blame the skulkers, at least here in America. Coming out and saying that you are for de-populating the earth, turning North America into a theme park, and breeding slave races on the old government plantation probably isn't going to get you a whole lot of votes or funding for the U.S. Department of Indoctrination. Camouflage and stealth: it's not just for tanks and planes any more.

In Chesterton's day he could still talk about the "humility of the man of science", a phrase many of us find quaintly amusing. Even Chesterton was amused by it for he saw their day passing as surely and swiftly as those hunters with the Clovis point saw the passing of the giant ground sloth or the mastodon. Projecting forward, he could see the inevitably of rising pride and the creation of the lordly scientific priesthood who shake their big, rattling gourds at us in the Twenty-First Century of what is now called — so appropriately — the Common Era.

The path of devolution is always the same. First comes wonder with its beloved foster child, humility. Humility gives birth to discovery. Discovery always rebels against his parent, sows his wild oats, and reaps his bastard offspring, power. Power and pride form their unholy union from which comes their first-born, unintended consequences, then his twin brothers, death and destruction. A rebirth of discovery is always denied to power and pride. If we doubt God, He answers us thus. Still, the reign of power and pride may be long, counter-balanced as it is by God's grace in raising up children to humility from the very stones of the earth.

That's Chesterton's point in the opening quote: that merely looking at things as they are tends to make us more humble, to set ablaze our sophisticated cool. We humans are very good at thinking that a name for something is the same as an explanation. It's not the facts that poison humility; it is someone's interpretation of the facts. We could walk well on the stones in our path. It's the bumperstickers that trip us up.

I even miss the good old days when we thought science was impressively objective, isolated, and concerned only with discovery for discovery's sake. You know how it used to be in science fiction when the lone, eccentric genius created some grand new thing in his basement la-BORE-atory. The emotional humanist hero would come along to ejaculate, "But think what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands!" Yep, those days are long gone. Too many of our current heroes are Boromirs who see the power of darkness as a "gift" that they may conquer, only to become that which they vanquish.

Reading through the New Testament, everyone has come to the Beatitudes. To this day, every time I read through the Sermon on the Mount, I fight the same thought: He's got to be kidding. Jesus, I find myself saying, You can't be serious about this stuff. Anybody who tries to follow Christ's teaching here will be eaten alive in this world. If you are going to try this, your best bet is to go ahead and die young because otherwise you'll wind up living in a cardboard box and getting mugged on a daily basis. Shoot, they'll probably even take your cardboard box.

The better part of me says, though, that cynical-me is wrong. He meant what He said, and He meant for us to live it. He did not promise that it would be easy. There are snakes in the brush, and, while old Smiley is gone, there are still lions and tigers and bears, not to mention jackals aplenty. All that's missing are the meek — or as more modern translations sometimes say, the gentle.

The meek are ones strong enough to be gentle, brave enough to fear, and bold enough to be humble. They inherit the earth because those who reject meekness reject man and his abode along with it. We'll inherit what we appreciate — that is, what gains value for us, or that to which we give or add value. We wonder at ourselves, at the cosmos, at the Creator. The legitimate explanations of science only serve to deepen our wonder, to add even more value to that which we have been given.

The world will always prefer the giants who look from a distance with disdain down upon the meek and — don't miss it — the lowly. They are impressed by his man-made armor of snark, his heavy weapons of vulgarity and mockery. They see no vulnerability and gather fearlessly in his wake.

Across the way comes one of those hillbillies, some kid just in from herding sheep and goats. Perhaps the crowd behind the giant smells the intruder before they see him, for indeed he must smell like sheep. They see him pause and stoop at the brook to pick up five stones cut out from the mountain and polished smooth without hands.

The humble shepherd looks up at the giant. He doesn't seem to see the armor or the shield or the spear. He looks the giant in the eye and sees the bare seat of his opponent's thoughts. The hillbilly says, "He's so big! How can I miss?"