Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dove Power

Reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, Frederick Bruner writes, “The Spirit comes down like a dove. She does not come in a form that might have been suggested by John’s just preceding portraiture (fire, axe, shovel) – like an eagle, lion, or tiger. The remarkable office of the Spirit is to nuance strength, to modulate power, and to deliver what is deeply needed in common and public life – the way of gentleness. That the Christian Spirit is identified with a dove should have world–historical significance. When the church grasps even a portion of the gospel’s downward and dovelike message – theologically (the humility of God, grace) and ethically (gentleness, nonviolence) – the church will be in a stronger position than she now is under a frequently nationalistic and so inevitably militaristic spirit. Christians are given power by the gift of the Spirit in baptism. But it is dove power.” (Page110, Matthew a Commentary – the Christbook, Matthew 1 – 12 (revised & expanded), Frederick Dale Bruner, Eerdmans, 2004).

We are called to follow Jesus distinctively, to obey His commands rather than the dictates of society; to take up the Cross and not a flag; to turn the other cheek and bless those who persecute us, not to inflict pain on others and not to curse. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” He does not say, “Blessed are the talking heads that stir up strife and enmity.”  He does not say, “Blessed are you when you respond to vitriol and sarcasm and anger and meanness in kind.”

It is no great trick to be militant and strident in the midst of a militant and strident society; all one needs to do is to let the current of the times take him downstream to be emptied out into a polluted ocean. It requires submission to the Lamb to bear His image, it requires a conscious decision to be like Jesus. We cannot swim against the current, we have not the strength or the wisdom, and we will exhaust ourselves if we try – but Jesus Christ living in us and through us can do all things.

Paul writes the Philippians that their gentleness is to be known to all men, and he instructs Timothy that the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition. It is well to remind ourselves that while we are in the world that we are not of the world (John 17); we do not belong to the world nor do we belong to ourselves – we belong to our Father and to the Lord Jesus, we are not our own, we are bought with a price.

This does not mean that we do not stand firmly and articulately for the truth of the Gospel, it does not mean that we do not speak the truth but rather are silent – it does mean that when we speak we ourselves are submitted to the One who is True in life as well as in Word, it means that we are willing to suffer for the True One, the Gentle One, the Lamb, and that we follow Him wherever He goes…mindful that He leads us to the Cross.

It is the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies that bears fruit, it is not the person who defends his own life and rights and agenda that produces life-giving fruit. Jesus Christ did not come to conquer Roman legions that held power over Israel, He came to conquer sin which held power over hearts; Jesus did not come to destroy the Roman Empire, He came to destroy the empire of self.

We can only know dove power as we surrender to Christ, we can only live by the life of Another as we say “no” to the spirit of this age and say “yes” to the Holy Spirit; the Spirit with whom we are sealed manifests Himself as a dove, our baptism should be a reminder of this – we are marked with the Dove and not a beast. Shall we serve the warlords (economic, political, military, racial, entertainment, sports, sexual, or otherwise) of this age or the Prince of Peace? Can others see which master we serve?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Greatness or Baseness? Or Both?

Pascal writes, “It is dangerous to let a man recognize too clearly how much he has in common with the animals without at the same time helping him to realize his greatness. It is also unwise to let him see his greatness too clearly without realizing also his baseness. It is even more dangerous still to leave him in ignorance of them both. So it is advantageous to draw attention to them both.”

Angels one minute, ravenous beasts the next; missions of mercy versus insatiable genocide; predatory economic practices versus Habitat for Humanity; mankind’s contradictions live in nations, communities, families, and individuals - our nature is inconsistent except in its inconsistency.

Teachers and preachers who prey on puffing our greatness at the expense of revealing our baseness lead us down a path to hell, a hell filled with self, a black hole of living that uses self as the benchmark. They have us traipse down an ever-widening highway of good feelings and intentions designed to make us feel better while we ignore the dis-ease of sin in our narcissistic souls – like animals we live to satisfy our appetites, except with us the appetite is that of self-esteem, of feeling good about ourselves no matter how delusional the hall of mirrors may be. They ignore the fact that our true greatness lies in experiencing restoration to the image of God, the image from which we fell; they ignore the fact that the way to that greatness is the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ.

Preachers and teachers who tell us we are worthless worms, creatures of the earth and ground and dirt and dust; who offer no respite from a continual pounding of guilt and shame – impose on us a slavery of the worst kind, a slavery that puts royalty in shackles, that convinces a prince that he is a pauper, a princess that she is a harlot. And humanists that bring us down to accidents of time plus matter plus chance rob us of all nobility, of a sense of Paradise Lost with the hope that Paradise may be regained. The humanist says, “Fool, animals have no hope except it be in their next meal. Eat, drink, and be merry – for when you die you die.”

The Gospel tells us that we are noble and ignoble at one and the same time and it tells us why, it helps us understand ourselves collectively and individually. It gives us a picture of health, it reveals our malady, and it offers a cure. The Law of God reveals our sin, the grace of God reveals our Savior.      

Monday, January 27, 2014

Something of a Treatise – Joy Davidman (Part 4)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to Aaron Kramer:

“Yours, with the hope you will not be too angry, Joy.”

I include Davidman’s conclusion to illustrate the risk she felt she was taking, “with the hope you will not be too angry.” She was asked to critique Kramer’s work and she honestly did it, working through the material he sent item by item, giving Kramer both something of a treatise and a critique. As she concludes the letter she hopes that her correspondent will not be too angry.

Telling others the truth, even when they ask, often involves risk; the risk of misunderstanding, the risk of relationship, the risk of rejection. As straightforward as Davidman is, she is concerned about the risk.

After her signature Davidman then includes a recommended reading list of around 80 authors and works, at the end of the list she writes, “The list is chosen for a specific purpose; to establish a background of culture and a foreground of good style….When you have read it all, you will not of course be really educated; but you will be able to meet an Oxford don or a Harvard Professor of English and follow, more or less, what he is talking about; and you will certainly be better able to criticize your own work…you will know how much you still have to learn and where to find it. Well, I’d better stop now before I collapse.”

She titles her list, “Education of a Poet”, and she indicates that an “*” by a title “means indispensable”. On the list is the King James Bible followed by eight asterisks with the note, “You can skip the begats; but no one can really write English well unless he has been through the Bible a couple of times.”

How long did it take Davidman to compose this letter (which takes 17 pages in Out of My Bone, The Letters of Joy Davidman, Don W. King editor, Eerdmans 2009)? How much thought and energy did she invest in responding to Kramer’s request for a critique? How seriously did she take his request? Had she already compiled a list of some 80 books and authors or did she do this just for Kramer?

This is a picture of mentoring; truthful, thoughtful, and vulnerable; Davidman felt vulnerable when all was said and done and perhaps Kramer felt vulnerable when making the request for critique – mentoring entails vulnerability for both the mentor and mentoree. How would Kramer take the critique? We’ll see in the next and final post on Davidson’s letter.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Questions to Ponder

Pascal writes, “The greatness of man is so obvious that it can be deduced even from his misery. What is natural in animals is seen to be wretchedness in man. From this we can recognize that since his nature today resembles that of the animals, he has fallen from a better state which in former times was more appropriate to him. Who does not feel more unhappy at not being a king except a king who has been deposed?...Who considers himself unhappy because he possess only one mouth? Yet who would not be unhappy if he had only one eye? No one, perhaps, has ever taken it into his mind to fret over not have three eyes. But man is inconsolable if he has no eyesight.

“So man’s greatness comes from knowing that he is wretched, for a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but it is a sign of our true greatness to know that we are wretched.” [Pages 82 and 83, Mind on Fire, cited in previous posts]. 

If we didn’t seek constant entertainment and diversion we might reflect on who we are; we might consider the dichotomy between good and evil that lies within us; we might ask why we have the capacity to act like angels one moment and devils the next; why we are capable of self-sacrifice at 9:00 AM and of inflicting harm on others at 9:05 AM.

We might also consider why things like a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment are important to us, whether we are an elementary-school child taking a spelling test or an employee receiving an annual review. Why do we want this year to be better than last year? If our names are in the paper recognizing an accomplishment why do we want others to see it? Why do we seek to love and be loved? Where does anger come from, not anger from bodily injury, but anger from wounded pride, from hurtful words, from a social slight?

Why do we seek something better today than we had yesterday? Why does the loss of position or of things distress us? Why this capacity for both good and evil, for right and wrong? Why does it matter what others think of us?

Why do stories of heroes and heroines and adventure and danger and overcoming impossible odds appeal to us? Why does it matter whether there is justice and redemption in novels and movies? Why do these things draw us and touch our hearts, reaching down into our souls?

What do people want and why do they want it? To listen to people, to ask questions, and then to ask more questions; we can serve those around us by asking questions – but then we must serve them again by listening without distraction.

Jesus came to seek and save those who are lost; to save the lost we must know where they are; to know where they are we must ask questions. We live and work with people but we do not know where they are, they might as well be on the other side of the earth, we see them but we do not know them. Why is that? 

In a society with noise and noise and more noise, questions that quiet the soul and mind, that invite reflection, that require more than an answer in a game of trivia – those are the questions that matter.

A line of questions we can ask people is, “Where do these desires for greater things come from? How can we be angels one moment and devils the next? Why do we want to be more than we are?”

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Troubling Question

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “But one question still troubles us. What can the call to discipleship mean today for the worker, the businessman, the squire [the well to do] and the soldier? Does it not lead to an intolerable dichotomy between our lives as workers in the world and our lives as Christians? If Christianity means following Christ, is it not a religion for a small minority, a spiritual elite?...Yet surely such an attitude is the exact opposite of the gracious mercy of Jesus Christ, who came to the publicans and sinners, the weak and the poor, the erring and the hopeless.” [Pages 40 – 41; The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1963 Macmillan (paperback), New York.]

What indeed does the call to discipleship mean today outside of church walls and home Bible studies and parachurch meetings? We live in a Christian ghetto, only poking our heads outside our shells long enough to quickly say, “Have a blessed day,” whatever that means. We forget that Jesus says, “If you want to follow Me, come and die.”

Bonhoeffer calls the dichotomy between our lives as workers in the world and our lives as Christians “intolerable”.  If it was intolerable when he wrote this in 1937, it is hardly intolerable today in 2014. Oh it may be Biblically intolerable, but it isn’t causing us in the West any angst, in fact it is a dichotomy which protects us nicely from engagement and conflict with the world, it is our firewall. We meet as Christians in church and small group gatherings and then we disperse into the workplace and school and neighborhood after putting our discipleship on hold until we meet once again in our enclaves – be they large or small. We’ve become like the Masons, known only to one another with code words and deeds; if we’re different than Masons it is because we are often far less willing to help one another in need and far less likely to know the Book of our faith than, I am told, Masons know the rules of their order.

I don’t think Bonhoeffer’s question troubles us at all today; I don’t hear us wrestling with it, I don’t see reflection on it, I don’t hear it preached about or taught about. I do see low - risk witnessing talked about occasionally, non-threatening witnessing given passing acknowledgment; but our real concern isn’t that others feel threatened, it is that we are threatened by the idea of obeying Jesus’ command to tell others about Him and to make disciples. It isn’t the lives of others we are concerned about saving, more often than not it is our own skin and pride and ego.

But Bonhoeffer isn’t writing about witnessing per se, he is writing about living for Jesus in all areas of life, about obeying our Lord Jesus, about taking up our cross and following Him – of course, such lives necessarily entail witnessing in both words and deeds.

Living for Jesus is at one and the same time the safest and riskiest way of life; it is risky in that we are called to die, to be obedient to Christ no matter what the cost or circumstances; it is safe because He is ever and always with us, His presence indwells us, His power envelopes us, and our eternal future in Him is certain.

Imagine an EMT (emergency medical technician) who worked in New York City who seldom went on ambulance calls; he went on calls so seldom that when he did he told all his friends about it; having a call to respond to was the exception and not the norm. After serving for 30 years he retired, and looking back on his 30 years of service he could only remember a few calls he ever responded to. This is a strange scenario is it not?

Consider professing Christians who are called to share the life-giving grace and Gospel of Jesus with others, who are commanded to do so, who have been redeemed to do so; and yet after decades of church attendance and small group participation and Sunday school studies have seldom, if ever, shared the Gospel with another person. Why are we not troubled by this dichotomy of the way we are “in church” and the way we are in society?

How much more troubling would our EMT scenario be if the EMT regularly rode around in his ambulance passing people with heart attacks, strokes, and automobile-accident injuries…never stopping to help, never stopping to save?

How often do we get out of the ambulance?

Are we troubled by this dichotomy…or is it just business (Christianity) as usual?

Obedience leads to witness.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Something of a Treatise – Joy Davidman (Part 3)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to Aaron Kramer:

“I am going presently to discuss your work in detail; but first I want to make some general appraisals. You seem to have little power of self-criticism. There are some fine things in the pamphlet, but they are side by side with work which no one should be wiling to have printed.”
[Page 59, Out of My Bone – The Letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King, Eerdmans, 2009.]

Davidman’s letter to Kramer occupies 17 pages in Out of My Bone, Davidman indeed discusses Kramer’s work in detail; she gives him what he asks for – but how will he receive it (a question that will be answered in a future post)?

The best educational experiences I’ve had were my preaching courses at Gordon-Conwell; they taught me a new level of self-critique and they taught me to listen to the critique of others. I dared not preach a message without engaging in ruthless self-critique beforehand and I had better learn to humbly and respectfully listen to the critique of my peers and professors after I delivered a message. Having said that, self-critique remains ruthless work for me, trying work – work akin to weeding a garden. I’ve never said, “This is going to be a great day, I’m going to weed the garden!” On the other hand, if I keep my eye on the prize, on the end result, I am motivated to weed the garden and to weed my speaking and writing. The closest experience to the preaching courses I’ve had is that of working with editors; it is an “Ouch!” and also an “I’m glad (I think) you pointed that out.”

I once asked the book editor of a popular and very good writer how he handled the editorial process, she replied that it didn’t make any difference how many bestsellers he had, he always doubted the artistic worth of what he had written and hearing critique remained painful. I equate some things in my life to eating ice cream, which I love; I don’t think I’ll ever feel like self-criticism or receiving the critique of others is like eating ice cream.

When I interview prospective employees in business I ask questions designed to measure their self-critique. Questions such as, “When you look back over your career, if you could go back and do one or two things differently what are they and why?” There are some people who can think of nothing in either career or life that they would do differently, at least that’s what they tell me. Within the church, when helping others in spiritual formation and when considering candidates for leadership positions I also look for the practice of self-critique.

Davidman was straightforward, and if there was nuance in her critique of others I haven’t found it in this volume of her letters. She gave encouragement and vision to others, she identified the good, the better, and the best…and she also pointed out those things which no one should be wiling to have printed. That may seem harsh to those who live in the world of the touchy – feely, but to those seeking to grow and improve their craft it is an education that money can’t buy.

Alas, since we tend to tie everything to self worth these days we often feel threatened when our work product is critiqued; we translate the language of clinical criticism into the language of feelings and emotions and personal acceptance – is it any wonder the quality of work and the ideal of workmanship have plummeted in our culture?

When we ask for others’ opinions and insights do we really want what we’re asking for? When we give people requested critique are we sincere or do we take the easy way out? Suppose I received a letter from Joy Davidman that had the above paragraph in it – how would I respond? Would I keep reading what she has to say?

What would you do?

Monday, January 20, 2014

What Is Our Answer?

Two contexts, the same illustration; two questions, the same point: “What do you think?” “What man among you….?”

In Matthew Chapter 18 the disciples want to know who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven; in response Jesus calls a child to Himself and talks about becoming as a child and about the way we treat children, and by extension others – don’t cause others to stumble. Jesus concludes His response with a question:

“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.”

The disciples are concerned about being the greatest, and in their concern over themselves they are ignoring the children around them. The children can hardly be important, what do they have to offer? They can’t help deal with the Roman occupation. They can’t contribute to the expenses of ministry. They are of no use in confronting the religious leaders with their harassment and plots. They can hardly be sent two-by-two on mission trips. Children are of no practical use. And yet Jesus says, “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea…See that you do not despise one of these little ones…”

No one sees the children; they are of no practical use, no one sees the children…but Jesus. “What do you think?” Jesus asks. Maybe the disciples should stop thinking about themselves and go looking for the 100th sheep lost somewhere in the mountains.

In Luke Chapter 15 the religious leaders are complaining about Jesus welcoming the religious and socially unacceptable into His company; these outcasts were “coming near Him” and the good and proper religious folks didn’t care for that, the unwashed needed to be kept at a distance, how could Jesus welcome them?

Jesus tells this parable: “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” To the religious leaders the socially and religiously unacceptable were of no practical use, in fact they might be construed as a threat to righteousness, one wouldn’t want to touch them or breathe the same air lest contamination occur, and one certainly would not eat with them. A righteous person would not want to invest time or resources in such people, they didn’t belong in the synagogue or Temple, they belonged in the garbage heap. Jesus asks a question, “What man among you…?”

How are we responding to Jesus’ questions today? What does our response look like? I fear that our reliance on social “science” and demographics and return on investment and fundraising and myriad utilitarian tricks results in a response that says in deeds if not in actual words, “Our studies have shown that our resources are best used in focusing on the ninety-nine and we really can’t invest ourselves in the one that is outside our target group…why we don’t even know where the person is; it wouldn’t be good stewardship to go looking for that person; no return on investment, it’s not practical, it won’t help us grow our church, it’s not the right demographic, surely you understand.”

As I read and reread Matthew 18 and Luke 15, as I ponder Jesus’ message, as I picture the shepherd seeking the one isolated and fearful lost sheep, and in so doing leaving the ninety-nine, as I see that this is a matter of the heart – for finding the lost sheep results in rejoicing and celebration – as I ponder these things…I don’t think Jesus will understand all of our utilitarian justifications for not seeking and saving that which is lost…whether or not that sheep is in our target demographic.

Lord, let me overlook no one – whether or not it makes practical common sense; help me to know what it is to seek and save that which is lost.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Psalm 33

“Behold, the eye of Yahweh is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His righteousness, to deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for Yahweh; He is our help and our shield.”

Competing hospitals in our area have electronic billboards which indicate the current waiting times in their emergency rooms – we don’t like to wait. Retail stores now not only have express lanes for those with just a few items, they also have self-service checkouts designed to reduce our waiting time (and their labor expense) - we don’t like to wait. Toll roads have express lanes where tolls are paid electronically, Amazon has next-day delivery, at Wal-Mart you can order online and pick your item up at a local store, churches design services to get attendees in and out on time – we don’t want to wait on anything, anytime, anywhere.

When we send an email or leave a voice mail we want a response right away, if our computer takes 30 seconds longer to boot-up than we think it should we get impatient – we don’t want to wait, we don’t like to wait, and all too often waiting unnerves us.

The psalmist writes, “Our soul waits for Yahweh.” There is much about waiting on God in the Bible, in fact, the Bible is replete with the point – counterpoint of waiting and fulfillment, waiting and fulfillment, waiting and fulfillment. God promises, we wait, God fulfills His promises.

As Jesus ascends to the Father He commands His followers, “Wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father.” He has just told them to “go into all the world and teach” and in the next breath He tells them, “Wait. I want you to go into the entire world, but oh, by the way, before you go you need to wait.” I’m not sure that plays out well for us today, this business of waiting on God, surely God must have an express check-out lane.

A popular chorus used to be Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the LORD will renew their strength, they will mount up on wings as eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not be faint. Teach me LORD, teach me LORD, to wait.” I haven’t heard that sung in years, we must have better things to do than wait on God.

Waiting on God weans our soul from other things, from feeding on outside stimuli, outside thinking; it also weans us from inside thinking, from self-centeredness. Waiting on God weans us from the noise of life, and we have an awful lot of noise in our lives – we’re addicted to it – not just auditory noise, but communication noise like emails and text messages and social media.

The waiting that Psalm 33 talks about begins with worship, “Sing for joy in Yahweh, O you righteous ones; praise is becoming to the upright,” Psalm 33:1. We are alive to worship, alive to love God with all we are and all we have, alive to live in intimate relationship with Him; as we worship Him we wait for Him - for deep worship is not just offering praise and adoration to the Father, it is waiting for His response, listening for His voice, waiting for the promise of the Father.

Waiting on our Father acknowledges that, “The king is not saved by a mighty army, a warrior is not delivered by great strength, a horse is a false hope for victory, nor does it deliver anyone by its strength,” verses 16 – 17. In other words, waiting on God acknowledges that in God alone do we find the answers, in Christ alone we find strength and wisdom, and that “unless the LORD builds the house they labor in vain who build it”, Psalm 127:1.

We don’t want to wait, we don’t like to wait, and we do everything we can not to wait; not to wait on others and not to wait on God. We may not be so rude as to sit in our cars and honk our horns waiting for God to get in and let us take Him where we want to go – we simply drive off without Him.

Whether we will wait for God, He will wait for us, at least to a certain point, a point that only He knows. What a shame to arrive at the end of life, to appear before God, and to hear, “I kept coming to you, day after day, night after night; I came to you at home, I came to you at work, I came to you in your deepest pain, and I came to you in your most wonderful moments…but everytime I got to where you were you were gone…your mind, your heart, your soul, your attention…you were gone seeking other things…I came and you were gone because you wouldn’t wait for me. How I wanted to share life with you.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Imaginary Life

Pascal writes, “…mankind is not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves, within our own being, Instead, we want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we are constantly trying to make impressions. We strive to embellish and improve our image, and so neglect the true self…” [Page 60, Mind on Fire, edited by James M. Houston, Bethany, 1997].

The Gospel liberates us from self-delusion by giving us understanding of our fallenness, sinfulness, vanity, and propensity to engage in self-delusion. Of course another great Gospel liberator, as Pascal discusses elsewhere, is the knowledge that mankind has fallen from greatness (the image of God) and that Christ has come to restore us to God’s image.

There is a sense in which we are all born crazy and that those in asylums are only there because their craziness is too crazy for the rest of us, too disruptive. Those in asylums are there because their views of reality and of themselves are warped beyond our own views, as disparate as our own views might be. We tend to think we are better than we are, even those who appear to be down on themselves are often down on themselves because they think too much of themselves – their problem isn’t low self-esteem, it’s preoccupation with themselves.

The Gospel teaches us that we are sinful; the fact that we sin is, in a sense, secondary – the Gospel message is that we sin because we are sinners not that we are sinners because we sin. This is a relief to us because now that the dis-ease has a name we can seek a remedy; now we can discover that the remedy, Jesus Christ, is seeking us this very day.

A few years ago a camera company had as its slogan, “Image is Everything”; that is the banner under which we live, we’ve convinced ourselves that perception is reality. While perception is important in that there are consequences to our perceptions, the ultimate consequences occur when perceptions are judged by reality. The objective truth of things is often not the issue in our thinking, it is image; and if the image fails the test of reality then we conjure another image to replace the image shattered.

What does money do except allow us to improve and flaunt our image?  What do advertisers sell? Whether they produce cars or phones or clothes or drink or food or drugs, they sell image and their advertising has little if anything to do with their products and everything to do with image. We are like children in a amusement park enticed by this ride and that, pretending that we are pilots in planes or engineers on trains or captains of ships or explorers reaching new heights – we spend our money in pursuit of image – instead of dressing up dolls or donning super-hero custumes, we dress ourselves up in images. Dare we look in the mirror and confess, “I’m acting like a child”?

The Gospel liberates us because it allows us to see ourselves for who we are outside of Christ, people engaged in self-deception, creating imaginary selves that we can worship and nurture and that we can try to convince others actually exist. “Do you like my imaginary self? If you like mine I’ll like yours. Let’s create a collective imaginary self, a collective image that will give us identity and security, and we’ll vie with other collective images the way sports teams compete against each other.”

It is not the impression I make on others that matters; it is the impression Jesus Christ makes on me.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Something of a Treatise – Joy Davidman (Part 2)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to Aaron Kramer:

“…the snow-covered hill outside my window is not beautiful in itself, it is only beautiful to my mind and if I were not a human being with an aesthetic faculty implicit in my nature, if I were a slug for instance, it would not be beautiful to me at all…[emphasis added]

“But ethics and aesthetics do depend to a certain extent upon the intrinsic nature of consciousness. It is not possible to arrive at a utilitarian or economic-determinist explanation of the sense of beauty…[emphasis Davidman’s]…

Davidman – Gresham (she was Mrs. William Gresham at this time) came into a relationship with Jesus Christ in 1947 – 1948. This letter to Kramer was written January 26, 1948. She began reading C.S. Lewis in 1947. Those who know Lewis will recognize in Davidman a kindred spirit – a sense of the aesthetic, a sense of beauty, a recognition of the aesthetic in human nature. I haven’t read anything that suggests that Davidman read in Lewis anything she didn’t already know, but rather that in Lewis Davidman found an affirmation of what she was working through in her heart and mind; perhaps in one sense Lewis was the sun and rain that fed the seeds of awareness in Davidman, perhaps he was an element of the light leading her out of a dark place.

I think it’s fair to say that Joy Davidman did her best to be a good Marxist and that there were two primary reasons she left Marxism; the philosophical, moral and practical inconsistencies; and simultaneously her continued pursuit of beauty and joy (in the transcendent sense of those two words).

Consider the following excerpts from the letter to Kramer:

“…we have almost invariably, for lack of guidance from Marx, made the economic-determinist error, thus: from Ethics is what serves the working class to Ethics is what comes in handy at the moment. Also: from Aesthetics is the study of man’s innate sense of beauty to Aesthetics is the study of man’s recognition of his true self-interest.
“I am not exaggerating; this has happened to my knowledge to a very grievous extent. Not once, but dozens of times, Marxist would-be-writers have told me in one way or another that nothing is beautiful except as it is useful. Applied to writing, this comes out as: I need only to follow the party line and I will have created a masterpiece. It would be nice if it were true; unfortunately it ain’t.” 

The battle with the utilitarian is something that many have engaged in from ancient days; the tyranny of the practical, of the expedient – the assault of the utilitarian on propositional truth and transcendent joy and beauty (the image of God in man responding to its Creator…marred as the image is). Our minds are made to respond to the intellectual truth of God, our hearts are made to respond to the beauty of God – the “I” responds to the “Thou” and we become the Bride of Christ, we come home to our Bridegroom.

Davidman saw that theoretical Marxist Ethics was altogether different from practical Marxist Ethics, the latter was the trump card, it was what comes in handy at the moment. But this is always the struggle, including the struggle within the professing Church in 2014. The practical trumps obedience to Jesus and His Word, the utilitarian drives our decision-making, church consultants and technology have replaced God’s Word and the Holy Spirit; witnessing is treated as an option; self-denial considered an archaic idea and command. The numbers drive everything; they drive how we spend money, they drive who we tailor our outreach to, they determine which churches ministers will serve – numbers are our default decision-making benchmark – and there is little or no angst if our decisions do not coincide with the Word of God, the teaching of Jesus, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or credible counter-cultural witness to the world.

So our decision-making in the professing Church is often no different than atheistic Marxist decision-making – if it works it’s good and if it doesn’t work it’s bad. How many books and videos are you going to sell if you don’t follow that philosophy?

Davidman wrote, “Applied to writing, this comes out as: I need only to follow the party line and I will have created a masterpiece. It would be nice if it were true; unfortunately it ain’t.”  Davidman could not sell her soul, try as she might, hope in Marxism as she might, she couldn’t do it. Jesus says that whoever seeks to save his soul will lose it; Davidman could have saved her Marxist soul by denying the contradictions with which she was faced, but she didn’t deny them and as a result found her soul. Pascal, Chesterton, Lewis…what they had been told by the world, by the established order, contained inherent contradictions; what they had been told violated the image of God within them (marred as it might be), it violated the logic of their observations, it just didn’t make consistent sense. Davidman tried to write the party line, she tried to be a good soldier, she gave it a good try – but in the end she left the realm of the walking dead and followed the Light of Christ and came to find, in the words of the Hebrew psalmist, that “In Thy light we see light”.

We may not be Marxists, but we are not immune from the virus of utilitarianism. That is the magnetic north of our society and it has become the magnetic north of much of the Western church. We can learn from Davidman.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Strange Disorder

Blaise Pascal wrote, “Man’s sensitivity to trivia, and his insensitivity to matters of major importance, reveal he has a strange disorder.”

The game Trivial Pursuit and the television game show Jeopardy tell us a lot about ourselves – we are intrigued by trivia, impressed by it, and applaud those who excel in it. People become famous by winning games based on trivia; they do not become famous explaining what the trivia actually means, its context, its place in history or in life. I’ve heard the host of Jeopardy say how bright various contestants are; they may have good memories but can they explain the questions or answers, can they critique a painting put on the screen, can they judge the truth of a quotation? Giving an answer does not mean that we know what the answer means. If I ask my Border Collie to “get fish” she will retrieve a canvass toy that looks like a fish and bring it to me, but I don’t think she has much of a larger context in which to interpret and understand my command; I don’t think she can engage in a comparative analysis of “fish” and “hose” and “ball” and “bottle” and her other toys. Perhaps with enough training she can participate in Jeopardy?

The news, as it is typically presented to us, is not much more than trivia – after all, how much contextual content can be communicated in thirty seconds or one or two minutes? If Pascal was writing about trivia in the 17th Century, what would he think today?

It is indeed a strange disorder that we applaud the trivial and resist engaging in the most important questions of life; we embrace the things that don’t matter and we reject eternal questions.

Why is this so?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Something of a Treatise – Joy Davidman (Part 1)

On January 26, 1948, Davidman wrote to Aaron Kramer, “I appreciate very much the compliment you have paid me in asking my opinion on your pamphlet. It seems to me that the best return I can make is to tell you the complete truth as I see it…In consequence, this letter is going to be not only a stringent criticism but something of a treatise on aesthetics. If your real desire is not to do the best possible work but only to get personal self-satisfaction out of whatever work you do, then you had better not read past this paragraph, which I shall close by inviting you and your family up here to visit us.” [Page 55, Out of My Bone – The Letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King, Eerdmans, 2009.]

This letter is one of many reasons King’s book is worth the purchase price, it shows Davidman at her direct best, no cotton candy, no soft touch – she was asked to critique Kramer’s writing and she’s going to honor his request. She is also going to construct a context for her critique, she is going to teach, to explore; she is going to engage in stringent criticism, she is going to write something of a treatise on aesthetics.

Effective teachers teach within context, they help the student view things within a framework, to see how ideas relate to each other, to appreciate the interconnectedness of the parts of the whole and to see that the whole is greater than the aggregate number of the parts. Davidman could have provided a point-by-point machine-gun critique and then gone on to other things in her life, but she didn’t. She took Kramer’s request seriously, she took it as a compliment, she thought about how best to respond, and she wrote something of a treatise within a thought-out letter.

It is one thing to give a person an answer; it is another thing to help the person understand the answer.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Theological Sweat

Information is nice, and empirical research has its place, but research should not replace common sense and Biblically-inspired wisdom.

I often wonder at the millions of government dollars wasted on nonsensical research such as, “Does watching violence influence the behavior and emotional well being of children?” We are brainwashed to think that unless a study is done that we can’t know the answer to a question that begs a common-sense answer. We take for granted that the word “science” in social science is really science and we are so reliant on technology and science that we don’t trust any answer that isn’t supported by a study.

The church world is no different; there are studies about churches that use this model and that model and another model; with many churches taking their direction not from a well thought out theology of ministry based on the Bible but rather from research – better to have research validate our decisions than the Scriptures.

I had a conversation with a pastor friend in which we pondered congregational issues; at the conclusion of the discussion he asked me if I’d read a particular book and I answered no, I had heard about the book but not read it. He then shared that he thought that maybe I’d read the book because of my comments on the congregational issues we were exploring – the book contained research that validated my thinking. The thing is that the possible congregational directions we were talking about were really baseline directions supported by Biblical teaching and sound theology. I didn’t share anything new, anything that our fathers in the faith hadn’t been thinking about for two millennia, anything that would surprise Augustine, or Chrysostom, or Paul, or Wesley.

Again, I’m not saying that research doesn’t have its place, but it isn’t the place that many of us have assigned it – its place is not to be the throne or the foundation or the North Star. If we won’t do the hard work of developing a theology of the church and of Christian ministry, if we won’t refine and critique that work, if we won’t sweat at practicing that theology – then we won’t have the spiritual and moral muscle to grow as leaders and as a people; to borrow from the writer of Hebrews, our senses will not have been exercised to distinguish between good and evil.

It’s one thing to purchase a physical house to live in that someone else has built; but no one should live in a theological house that he (or she) has not poured years of sweat into. Yes, others can help us build the house just as plumbers and electricians can help us build a physical house, and no sound theological house should be novel and not be beholden to the contributions of others – but we have to do the actual work; we may work alongside Luther and Calvin and Augustine and others, but we’ve got to take ownership of the house. We need to be able to say, “I remember putting that wall in. I recall when I rearranged the dimensions of that room. Oh, I had to do a complete renovation of that wing – I realized I built it off the foundation.”

Research and social science are no substitute for common sense and Biblical wisdom; nor are they substitutes for theological sweat.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

When the Ride Stops…What Happens?

Pascal wrote, “This present life is momentary, but the state of death is eternal. How terribly important it is, then, to live in the light of the eternal…Since nothing is more obvious than this observation, how absurd it is to behave differently.

“Seen from this angle, how absurd it is for people to go through life without regard to their final destiny. Instead, they are led as they feel inclined and as they indulge themselves, unreflective and careless, as though they could wipe out eternity and enjoy some passing happiness merely by repressing their thoughts.” [Excerpts taken from Mind on Fire – A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent, Edited by Dr. James M. Houston, Bethany House, 1989, 1997 – this quote from page 45].

When the amusement park ride begins I know it will end, I may not know how long the ride will be but I know it will end. When the plane lifts off from the tarmac I know its destination, I know the flight will end, I know I will disembark. When I awake in the morning I know that the probability is that I will be alive when night comes; I also know that I will awake one morning and not live until the next morning. We plan for the ride to end, we plan for the flight to land, but we do not plan to die. We have a general idea of what we will do when the ride ends, we know what we will do when we disembark from the plane, but we do not (as humanity) consider what we will do when we die – we think we can control this life and we think we can control the next.

We criticize those around us with behaving like an ostrich if they fail to recognize the realities of life, and yet we tend to ignore and suppress the reality of death and so play the ostrich ourselves. A builder would not build a house without blueprints, a corporate executive would not begin the new year without a plan for the coming months, a family would not begin a vacation drive without gasoline in the tank and monetary provision for the week, we would not invite guests for Thanksgiving without a turkey and pumpkin pie, a surgeon would not operate without knowing what organ requires attention – while some of us may exercise more forethought than others, we all plan to one degree or another, we all think ahead, we are all aware of the passing of time and the diminishing of resources – the gas tank needs to be refilled at some point.

Yet we suppress and ignore by denial and diversion the reality of death. For people who are otherwise intelligent and thoughtful this is amazing and illogical. People in business who are constantly focused on the financial bottom line ignore the bottom line of life, they ignore death. Why? How can this be? 

Would we begin a trek across the Sahara without first ensuring that we had water and provision for the journey? Would we say, “The pint of water I carry is enough for now, I’ll worry about more water when I run out.” Yet we say that we need not think about death today, we’ll deal with it when it happens. We will have no more control over death when it comes than we will have over the absence of water in the Sahara once our little pint of water is exhausted – just because we say we’ll deal with the lack of water when it happens means nothing – other than that we are denying reality – there will be no supernatural appearance of water in the desert. 

No reputable builder would build a house without a foundation – yet we build our lives without foundations, we build houses without bearing walls, and we see no contradiction in our actions and thinking, we see no hint of being illogical – in fact we applaud ourselves and each other. It is as if the Emperor has convinced everyone else to wear his new clothes…is there no little boy to tell us that we are naked?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Strange Offense

I have offended people when I’ve inquired about their eternal welfare.

I have offended professing Christians when I’ve suggested that they read and know the Bible.

One offense is as strange to me as the other.

I have offended more professing Christians with concern over them knowing the Bible than I have offended those who make no profession of faith with my concern over their well-being. Truly a strange thing.

Could this be the first generation of Christians that think not knowing the Bible is not a thing to be concerned about? Little wonder we are sliding down the slippery slope of fuzzy translations (to use the word “translation” loosely); what we do not know we cannot critique and discern. If I do not know what fine workmanship is I’ll not identify shoddy workmanship.

People have lived and died to give us the Bible, God reveals Himself to us through the Scriptures…simply put…we ought to know the Bible; knowledge of the Word of God should be nonnegotiable in the life of the Christian.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Living and Loving as Jesus

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren, 1 John 3:16.

Andrew Murray, commenting on this verse writes:

“The cross of Christ is the measure by which we know how much Christ loves us. The cross is also the measure of the love which we owe to those around us. It is only as the love of Christ on the cross possesses our hearts and daily animates our whole being, that we shall be able to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our fellowship in the cross of Christ is to manifest itself in our sacrifice of love, not only to Christ himself, but to all who belong to him.

“The life to which John calls us here is something entirely supernatural and divine. It is only the faith of Christ himself living in us that can enable us to accept this great command assured that Christ himself will work it out in us….

“But for such fellowship and conformity to the death of Christ, nothing will do but the daily, unbroken abiding in Christ Jesus which he has promised us. By the Holy Spirit revealing and glorifying Christ in us, we may trust Christ himself to live out his life in us.”

Our call is to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, Matthew 5:48. This is not a mountain to climb but rather a life to enter into; yet it is not only a life to enter into but also a life that enters into us. This call to live as Jesus is not simply asking, “What would Jesus do?” It is rather knowing what Jesus is doing and how He is working and living in us (Philippians 2:12 – 13). Our lives are built on a foundation both timeless and historical; timeless in that we were chosen before the foundation of the world, historical in that Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and was raised from the dead. However, our lives in Christ are more than rooted in that which is beyond the mists of time, and they are more than historical events that occurred some two thousand years ago; our lives in Christ are in the present as He lives in us and as we abide in Him – for unless we abide in Him we will bear no fruit, indeed, unless we abide in Him there will be no life in us (John 15).

This is not a ladder to ascend as if we are to measure up to God’s expectations or as if we are playing king of a spiritual hill; it is a relationship – a wedding of our souls and spirits to Jesus Christ, a union with Him that causes us to rejoice in the great New Testament term “in Christ”. This is an expectation as we begin each day anew that we begin it “in Christ” and that we will live it “in Christ” and that throughout the day we will live in fellowship with Him and with His people…and that we will also have opportunity to lay our lives down for others.

It is an affirmation and realization that Jesus Christ is indeed Emmanuel, God with us.