Sunday, May 30, 2010

“I’m Not Religious, I’m Spiritual”

For those of us who often hear the above statement there’s a pretty good piece on First Things:

I think this applies as much to professing Christians as to society at-large, that is, I often hear it from professing Christians and they typically don’t know what they believe – it’s like living in the ???????-???? Zip Code. We’re not doing anyone a favor by trying to attract them with, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” nor are we doing them a favor by allowing such a statement to pass without a winsome question or two.

There have been times when I’ve thought about what we’re missing in the trend toward non-denominational churches, with even denominational churches downplaying or hiding their denominational affiliations, at the expense of articulating Biblical teaching and yes…here’s that “D” word, doctrine. (Is a denominational church that hides its identity analogous to a warship not flying its nation’s flag?)

What I mean is that no one seems to know what they believe – everyone’s spiritual now and we don’t need doctrine. Guess I’d better stop on this one – anyway – the above is a pretty good article.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Reconciliation To Avoid

My Puritan prayer this morning contained the following:

Grant that I may never trust my heart, depend upon past experiences, magnify any present resolutions, but be strong in the grace of Jesus: that I may know how to obtain relief from a guilty conscience without feeling reconciled to my imperfections. [Bold and italics mine].

How often I have been reconciled to my imperfections! How often I have sought detente and truce with my sin when there should never be accommodation with sin. How often have I played Chamberlain to sin’s Hitler! And how often have I acted the part of ancient Israel in Canaan in choosing to compromise with the inhabitants (sin) of the land of my heart.

“Lord Jesus, if today there is in me a reconciliation to sin in any form, in any shape, in any fashion, please reveal such to me in Your mercy and lead me out of that darkness, delivering me from myself while drawing me unto and into You.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Furnace Mouth

This morning my Puritan prayer contained the following:

O God, the Eternal All, help me to know that
all things are shadows, but thou art substance,
all things are quicksands, but thou art mountain,
all things are shifting, but thou art anchor,
all things are ignorance, but thou art wisdom.

I found this a great reminder in the tsunami of chaos enveloping our world and nation right now. I hear the Psalmist: Even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.

The next lines in this Puritan prayer are:

If my life is to be a crucible amid burning heat,
so be it,
but do thou sit at the furnace mouth
to watch the ore that nothing be lost.

This image of God sitting at the furnace mouth spoke to me on various levels.

Yesterday I spent some time with a dear friend who means more to me than he’ll ever know – at least in this life he probably won’t realize it. We were talking about things in our past that we deeply regret and how that at times those things will come back to us in Technicolor, not with a sense of condemnation for we know Christ has taken care of our sin and guilt; but rather with a deeper awareness of what was actually involved in whatever the thing might be followed by a sense of the grace, mercy and redemption we have in Jesus Christ – it is as if the Father and Christ are reminding us from where and what they have redeemed us and of their great love and grace in our lives. And so the image of God sitting at the furnace mouth and using the things in my life that I’d really rather forget to transform me into the image of Christ gives me hope both for myself and for people I have hurt or sinned against during my life.

Psalm 12:6 reads, “The words of Yahweh are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times.” I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the Word of Yahweh, which He deposits in His sons and daughters, isn’t tried in our earthen vessels. Not that the Word of God in and of itself requires purification, but perhaps God’s words are heated white hot in order to be burned into our lives? This in turn reminds me of Psalm 105:19, regarding Joseph:

They afflicted his feet with fetters, he himself was laid in irons; until the time that His word came to pass, the word of Yahweh refined him.

It isn’t that the Word of Yahweh is refined; it is that the Word refines us through fire, through testing, to conform us to the image of Christ Jesus, (Romans 8:29).

I want the Father and Lord Jesus at the mouth of the furnace; I desire that they ensure that no ore – none of the materials of this life – will be wasted, that nothing will be lost.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Thoughts from Thomas a Kempis

I’m enjoying The Imitation of Christ. Chapter 58 of the Third Book has some material that grabbed my attention.

I foreknew my beloved ones before the beginning of the world. I chose them out of the world, they chose not me first. I called them by grace. I attracted them by mercy. I led them safe through sundry temptations. I have poured into them glorious consolations, I have given them perseverance, I have crowned their patience.

It’s nice to know we’re not accidents looking for a place to happen.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Devotional Thoughts

A few days ago I came across this line in my morning prayers (page 134 from the Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers).

Give me deeper holiness in speech, thought, action, and let me not seek moral virtue apart from thee.

The idea of not seeking moral virtue apart from Christ is a challenge for me. I want to do something to have moral virtue. It is also a challenge not to view “values” or “virtues” apart from Christ; they can easily be viewed as ends in themselves, ends that can be obtained and maintained by man.

My friend Mel Meadows has written a novel, Uzzah, that explores this challenge in the context of man attempting to give God a hand, as if God needs our help. Check out the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel Chapter 6 – it seems we’re good at building wagons and trying to stabilize God’s Testimony.

A couple of years ago I was talking to a dear friend, who is a pastor, about finding Christ-centered curricula for teens and children. He pointed out that finding such curricula is a challenge, for much curricula focuses on character and behavior rather than on Jesus Christ. That is an example of seeking moral virtue apart from  Christ.

I believe that our propensity to seek moral virtue apart from Christ is much more dangerous to the Church than overt evil. Our good programs and specialized constituencies within the Church tend to have centers of gravity that are self-serving – we seek other things to fill the hunger that only Christ can satisfy.

I really do want to know Christ.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald – Phantastes: II

This morning I picked up George Sayer’s, Jack, and saw that he does a much better job of interacting with Lewis and MacDonald that I’ll be able to do – so let me point you in that direction if you want to pursue the subject – but having said that – I’ll still venture forth.

Lewis was living with his tutor Kirkpatrick when he read Phantastes. Kirkpatrick was, as I recall, an atheist. I find it interesting that in the midst of his time with Kirkpatrick that he encounters Phantastes. His time with Kirkpatrick was wonderful, and if memory serves me well Kirkpatrick started Lewis off with Homer in Greek – there we have romance as well. So even if Kirkpatrick was an atheist it would seem that he had a sense of “beauty” about him. (Are these speculations valid?)

MacDonald idealizes women in his writings. Better yet, if we consider Lilith (which I intend to reread), MacDonald has strong women in his writings. MacDonald works with at least two types of women, the wise older woman and the idealized younger woman. Lilith would be yet a third type of woman, beautiful evil – though that may be simplistic, I really need to reread that book – and let’s add the Ash-Tree in Phantastes to the category of evil women.

The wise older women encountered in Phantastes would have spoken to Lewis of his mother and his nurse. Lewis’s loss of both at an early age was a life-defining experience – Phantastes presumably would have evoked their memory, their presence, and the joy and beauty associated with that innocent season of life. Also, consider that after the death of his mother that Lewis was sent to England and the hell of Robert Capron’s boarding school – what a shattering of joy and beauty and hopes and dreams! With Kirkpatrick Lewis finds true learning, stability, intellectual challenge – and lo – in reading MacDonald while with Kirkpatrick he once again senses “joy”. Of course he has no idea that MacDonald is a Christian – but the return journey has begun.

The idealized younger women in Phantastes may have been a counter balance to Lewis’s preoccupation with women as sexual objects; of perhaps even misogamy as a reaction against the death-abandonment of his mother? Lewis and his friend, Arthur Greeves, discussed and fantasized about some pretty dark sexual things; beyond that, as far as I know, we have speculation. I raise this not to speculate, and I know that many are uncomfortable with approaching this subject in general or with Lewis in particular, but the pre-Christian Lewis was hardly a saint, as he would readily confess, and while some elements of his pre-Christian life matured in an ethical fashion, others got worse – he was a snob and a liar to name two elements that got worse. This is a testimony to the grace and redemption of God – we ought not to avoid the facts, we have only to read Lewis’s letters.

My sense is that when Lewis came to Christ that his moral and ethical life experienced an immediate change – and that he continued to work through these things with a deep awareness of the grace of Christ towards him and in him.  

Both kinds of women in Phantastes, the older wise woman and the younger idealized woman, speak of something higher, something nobler, which in turn leads to joy and beauty – to that which is invisible and which is also enduring.

There are also five prominent men in Phantastes; the knight with the tarnished armor, Cosmo in the fairy story, the two brothers with whom Anodos (the protagonist in Phantastes) joins in brotherhood and battle against giants; the fifth is Anodos.

The knight’s armor is tarnished because he has fallen victim to the Ash-Tree – but he will redeem himself through noble actions, through redeeming others, and attain to true love with an idealized woman.

Cosmo is a character in a story read by Anodos. Cosmo gives his life to free a woman he loves (yet another woman in Phantastes) from a curse.

The two brothers give their lives to restore the honor of their father, a king, whose land is under the tyranny of three giants who are holding hostages. One of the brothers is engaged to be married but is willing to risk this deep love in battle – so again love for a woman enters into the story, though in this case it is not a driving force.

Anodos, the fifth man, well, Phantastes is about his journey through Fairy Land. This journey commences when he turns twenty-one years old and it lasts, in man’s natural time, twenty-one days – he learns this when he returns to his own land. It is a journey of maturation, of testing, of triumph and failure, of heart-searching, of an exploration of selfish and unselfish love – and if you’ve read the book I’m sure you can add other elements.

Considering Lewis’s enchantment with epic story and myth it is little wonder Phantastes had an immediate and unfolding effect on him. What George MacDonald began, Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien would complete years later as the three friends traversed Addision’s Walk in Oxford. Dyson and Tolkien would bring into focus for Lewis that which he undoubtedly already knew at some level – that it is all one story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a longing for our home, a return to “joy”. From Boxen to Phantastes to Fairy Land to Narnia – not a bad pilgrimage at all, not a bad pilgrimage at all.

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded George MacDonald as my master; indeed, I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. – C.S. Lewis

Monday, May 10, 2010

C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald - Phantastes

I recently reread Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, and just finished the last page of MacDonald’s Phantastes. It is my second time through MacDonald’s fairy story; this time I savored the journey. The first time reading Phantastes I succumbed to a habit of mine of driving through a region quickly, getting a feel for the land. While I may acknowledge the scenery, I often see it at too fast a speed. This drive was leisurely.

Another habit I have is driving quickly through verse interspersed in a manuscript. This time I slowed down and drank it in; experienced it. It was pleasant – like the aroma of honeysuckle on a still summer’s evening.

I wanted to read Phantastes right after Surprised by Joy because of the role of Phantastes in reawakening “joy” in Lewis. (I wonder if “higher critics” will one day teach that there were at least two men who wrote under the name C.S. Lewis? After all, how could the same person write intellectual/logical material on the one hand and mythical stories on the other? And what will they do with the fact that Lewis called himself “Jack”? No doubt they’ll have at least three men writing Lewis’s material!)

Phantastes is a Romance, not in the sense that we popularly use the term today, but in in the sense that Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers and others used the term – and I think I’d include Chesterton though I don’t know that he used the term (Chesterton also influenced Lewis in Lewis’s journey to Christ). And while MacDonald may have set out to “just” write a Fairy Story, (and my limited knowledge tells me that all Fairy Stories are Romantic stories) I don’t see how George MacDonald could write anything not imbued with his understanding and experience of Christ.

In Romance the transcendent is encountered in the individual object of affection – whether it be a woman, a man, or a virtue such as honor, courage, or truth. Sayers wrote about the “union of the intellect and the imagination as the highest means of reaching religious truth.” It is the Romance that often evokes the imagination, that in Chesterton caused him to reflect that everything he needed to know he learned in the stories told him in the nursery. Chesterton tried to kill the nursery stories and in so doing realized that he almost killed himself – isn’t that what many of us have done? Is this what Lewis meant when he wrote about “men without chests”?

And can we hear echoes of Lewis’s comment on Narnia about either reading it when you’re young or when you’re old, because in essence when you’re trying to act like the adult the world expects you to be you’ll distain Narnia? The problem in our day with those in advanced adulthood is that we’ve been so conditioned by a mechanistic worldview that we can’t seem to find our hearts to discover Narnia. (Is the younger generation’s embrace of fantasy a reaction against a mechanistic view of humanity?) When we do venture into that land we tend to do so as Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, for hedonistic and utilitarian purposes.

Well, I see that I need to pull myself back into Lewis and Phantastes, I’ll try that in my next post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

To End All Wars – Book and Movie, Part II

To End All Wars is rated “R” for violence and language. I seldom view a R-rated movie because I don’t want the mind pollution – this is not about others who watch R-rated movies, this is about me (and Vickie). I don’t want the language, violence, or sexual content pollution – to name the three big pollutants.

I did not find any language or violence in To End All Wars that I thought gratuitous; as mentioned in yesterday’s post the historical violence was downplayed. I imagine the language was also downplayed, when coarse language was used I never felt it was being used to draw attention to itself but rather that it was relevant to the scene.

My friend David said in effect, “This is the movie The Passion set in WWII.” I thought that a good comparison. One difference between the two movies is that To End All Wars releases its tension throughout the movie whereas, as I recall, while The Passion has flashbacks that the tension and violence are pretty much unrelenting. Of course when the tension is released in To End All Wars you find yourself wondering when the next challenge or tragedy will occur, but there is such a wonderful element of hope that I found myself experiencing joy at certain junctures in the movie – which was not my experience throughout The Passion

This is not a movie to be watched for entertainment; it is a movie to be explored and discussed. It is not a war movie; it is a movie set in the cruelty of war and within a clash of cultures. The latter element is applicable in our own day when we hear much about culture wars, both within and without our nation. Ernest Gordon and his companions not only learned the mercy of Christ, they learned to understand, to some degree, the warrior culture of the Japanese which in turn helped them communicate with their captors.

The sacrificial love of Christ portrayed in this movie is something we would do well to remember when engaging in political discourse, in our treatment of our neighbors and coworkers, in all of our heart attitudes towards others. It is something that can inform our approach to cultures different from our Western culture and within our Western culture.

To End All Wars is ultimately about Christ forgiving and loving us and us forgiving and loving others through Christ, which leads to the end of all wars - both within ourselves and towards others. Isn’t this what we would expect from the Prince of Peace?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To End All Wars – Book and Movie, Part I

A couple of weeks ago my friend David invited me to watch the movie, To End All Wars, based on a book by the same title. When the book was first published in the US in 1963 the title was, Through the Valley of the River Kwai; and in 1965 it’s UK release was, Miracle on the River Kwai. The first two titles speak to the historical setting of the book, the building of the “Railroad of Death” by Allied Prisoners of war and enslaved civilians in Indo-China in WWII.

The book is by Ernest Gordon and is an autobiographical account of his experience as a prisoner of war. The movie, released in 2001, closely follows the book in terms of content and message. I’m not going to write about the cast of the movie or other movie “facts”, those are accessible online. What I do want to do is share some thoughts about the interplay of the book and movie and the message from both.

Unlike the fictional Bridge Over The River Kwai and the book upon which it was based, the book To End All Wars is true and the movie is based on the truth of the book. There is what I suppose is termed artistic license in the movie and because of this I think it is vital that if you see the movie that you also read the book. Because I love history I’m pretty critical when I see historical inaccuracies in a movie, but in this instance I’m not troubled by the movie.

For one thing, the historical milieu is accurate – if anything the cruelty to which Allied prisoners of war were subjected is downplayed, but neither is it ignored for it is vital to the story, a story not just about Ernest Gordon, but a story about the mercy and grace of God in the lives of men who had not only lost hope, they had lost their humanity.

One Christian movie reviewer thought the movie’s Christian message over-the-top for non-Christians. There are two reasons I disagree with the reviewer. The first is that the sacrificial love portrayed in the movie is so unlike anything we are accustomed to, whether we are Christians or not, that it challenge’s all of us. There is nothing sugary sweet about the portrayal of this love and it is not a love that is without tension. The production values, unlike most films with an overt Christian message, are high – supporting the script by Brian Godawa rather than detracting from it.

The second reason I disagree with the reviewer is that most of the events in the movie have a factual basis in the book, therefore “it is what it is.” That is, the content of most of the events actually happened – deal with it. This is one reason why I say, “If you see the movie make sure you read the book.” What Christ did in the lives of these men is something that stretches the imagination. If the movie were fictional I might agree with the reviewer; but it isn’t – the story is remarkable.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dante and the Specificity of Sin

In my journey through Dante’s Purgatory I was struck by how general we’ve become about sin as opposed to Dante’s specific approach. In becoming general we have lost our understanding of sin, removed it from our spiritual formation, and also provided ourselves with a convenient excuse to do pretty much what we want, as long as it’s a respectable sin, under the rubric, “Well, I’m a sinner, what do you expect?” Our repentance has become general, not specific. Our general repentance, which is ambiguous, hinders our understanding that we are saints in Christ and no longer sinners; while specific repentance underscores that when we come to know Christ that we have a fundamental change in identity.

Purgatory works through the seven roots of sin:

  1. Pride or Vainglory

  2. Envy

  3. Wrath

  4. Sloth

  5. Avarice – Covetousness

  6. Greed – Gluttony

  7. Lust

Seven penitential virtues are juxtaposed:

  1. Humility

  2. Generosity

  3. Meekness

  4. Zeal

  5. Liberality

  6. Temperance

  7. Chastity

Pride, Envy and Wrath are classified as Love of Neighbors’ Harm, they are Love Perverted. Sloth, Avarice, Greed, and Lust  are classified as Disordered Love of Good, they are Defective Love and Excessive Love of Secondary Goods. The scope of Dante’s Purgatory exceeds these sins and virtues, for the Comedy is first and foremost a Divine Romance, but my focus here is on the specificity of sin.

Here’s an excerpt from a presentation by Dorothy L. Sayers titled, The Other Six Deadly Sins:

Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only…[sexual sin]…A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant, stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.”

Dante, Sayers, and historic Christianity will not let us escape the specificity of sin.   Biblical Christianity insists that we put off immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed (equated with idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech – see Colossians 3:5 – 8.

I’m not sure why we have stopped identifying and preaching about specific sins. If it was from a desire not to “be negative” we have done the same disservice as a physician who either fails to diagnose a disease or, worse yet, knows the diagnosis but fails to tell the patient so that the patient can seek treatment.  Better to hear the “c-word” and seek treatment than to go on one’s merry way thinking that one, “Just isn’t feeling well, but it will pass.”

Dealing with specific sins reinforces my identity as a saint in Jesus Christ; generalizing sin treats me like a sinner and reinforces a sinner’s mentality and identity.
The New Testament is clear that when we come to Christ that we exchange our old identity as sinners for a new identity in Christ as saints. I am unaware of any instance in which Paul addresses his readers as sinners, quite the contrary, he terms them saints and stresses their completeness in Christ and the completeness of Christ’s work in them. When Paul calls himself, “..the foremost among all sinners…” he is using that term in context to make a point of God’s amazing mercy and grace.

Paul can deal with the specific sins of the people to whom he is writing because he has established their identity in Christ (I can think of no better example than 1 Corinthians 1:1 – 9).

However, if I am saddled with a general mentality of sin, and a primary identity of being a sinner saved by grace, then I am told that I am a generally sick person without specific diagnoses and I can really expect no better in this life. My life becomes one without definition and without formation into the image of Jesus Christ. As a by-product I am also given a free pass to do what I want as long as it’s socially acceptable, for after all, I’m just a sinner saved by grace.

For the unbeliever the issue is not “sins” but knowing Christ – though of course the Law applied to our transgressions leads us to Christ. For the Christian, the issue of identity has been settled (though we need to constantly “reckon” and remind ourselves of it – Romans 5:12 – 8:39) and we are called to embark upon a life of holiness in the image of God and Christ; not a nebulous holiness, but one with articulation and definition – the very image of the Word made flesh.