Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Bell Ringer



Typically, I spend much time alone, whether sitting at home or out and about. An academic and contemplative life demands frequent isolation, and the person so "geared" would be frustrated indeed without the solace of silence. But I must look to Jesus as my example here who, despite His need for sacred hours of devout aloneness, almost daily subjected Himself to the whirling vortex of social engagement. The vita contemplativa without the vita activa cannot be the calling of a dutiful Christian. Since "no man liveth unto himself," Providence frequently thrusts me from Elijah's cave into Jezebel's domain if only to go to the grocery store, which I did yesterday.
 
I don't think "the Christmas spirit" motivates these musings, for I know my habits, but I have no doubt that the lonely bell ringer standing by the cold red bucket outside Kroger heightened my spiritual sensitivities, especially as I noticed several special shoppers. One proceeded me in the parking lot, a young woman with a walker, legs mangled and shuffling and sliding across the gritty asphalt. Was she injured? Did she suffer from sickness? Was there a congenital malady or a birth defect? Anyone with the slightest streak of human integrity and dignity would be moved with compassion at such a sight, but when coupled with Christ's own tender heart beating in our bosoms, how profusely should our hearts brim with the tender mercies of God at such a sight! So I prayed,
 
"God bless her . . . "
 
Once inside, I beheld something even more stirring, the mother pushing the stroller, not a baby stroller but a stroller designed for an adult. I don't know what malady besieged the young woman whose contorted body was strapped in the rolling device, perhaps Lou Gherig's disease or an advanced case of some other neuro-muscular disorder, but her spasmodic and contorted gestures witnessed to serious and heart-rending illness. But what a mother she had! A handsome woman elegantly arrayed whose calling in life was to love and care for this very delicate and beautiful child. The mother's devotion to her sickly child was so powerfully obvious in the swaddling clothes with which she had enwrapped her precious child in that rickety, aluminum manger . . . pink pants and blouse, pink coat, pink hat and, perhaps most touching, the perfectly coiffured white poodle with a pink bow atop its curly head, nestled comfortably in the daughter's frail lap. The child was the recipient of her mother's gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What must have been the mother's emotions when the sickly child was born, or when the healthy child was diagnosed with the devastating disease? What hours spent in bathing and feeding, comforting and consoling, and loving as only a mother can love! What a deep and wide stretching of a mother's soul had Providence wrought! I prayed again,
 
"God bless them."
 
As I exited the store, the bell rung rhythmically, "Ding . . .ding . . . ding," and the bell ringer's voice spoke to all passers-by,
 
"God bless you."
 
Encounters with strangers, whether strangers sick and sorrowful, healthy and happy, or wealthy and wicked, such encounters are never random, for although we think that our hearts devise our paths, it is the Lord who sovereignly directs our paths to crossroads where others, especially strangers, traverse life's hard highways and crooked byways. What can we do? What can we say? We can pray.
 
"God bless him. . . . God bless her. . . . God bless them. . . . God help them."
 
My prayer life is not and never has been what it should be. I don't wrestle hard enough with the angel, and my hands are too weak upon the horns of the altar. I'm sure others would testify the same. I confess that fault not to feign humility, much less to admonish other Christians similarly at fault, but rather to encourage them with perhaps a new context and practice of prayer that has been a great blessing to me and, I hope, to those others for whom I pray.
 
Who knows what God will do on behalf of those, even strangers, for whom we pray?
 
"God bless them."
 
That little prayer, spontaneously but sincerely sprung from a compassionate heart, may not be heard upon earth except quietly within the intercessor's breast, but such a prayer at least touches the hem of heaven's garment, and may even loudly ring the golden bells woven therein. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Prayer of Thanksgiving
 
Father, I thank Thee for Thy predestinating grace, for of Thee, and through Thee, and to Thee are all things. You have purposed it; You will do it. You have spoken it; You will also bring it to pass. I thank Thee for the Everlasting Covenant ordered in all things and sure, by which You ordained the salvation of Thy people, electing them in everlasting paternal Love; redeeming them by the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and pledging Thy Holy Spirit to seek and save that which was lost.

I thank Thee for Thy prevenient grace that covered me in my mother's womb, that made me the apple of Thine eye, commissioning Thy holy angels to encamp round about me and deliver me; compassing my path before and behind, ordering my steps and leading me to Thyself.
 
I thank Thee for Thy providential grace that supplies all my physical and spiritual needs through the unsearchable riches of Thy bountiful grace. Thou art my bread and my water; my life and my light; my joy, my peace, my love, my salvation, and my righteousness.
 
I thank Thee for Thy preserving grace, which is able to keep me unto salvation; which picks me up if I fall; which heals my self-inflicted wounds; which dries my tears if I should weep; and which will deliver me safely to my desired haven.
Amen
 
 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Covering.

Ready or not...

We've all said the words.  We've all heard them.  We've all played the game.  The seeker buries his eyes in the crook of his arm, leaning against a tree, and begins counting...

1...2...3...

We run.  We run as fast as we can, torn between sneaky silence and the urge to get away and hide.  We try to move quietly, but must flee hastily toward our temporary shelter, our disguise, our hiding place.  We know that the seeker is fair.  We know that the seeker isn't peeking.  But we also know that the seeker is, while counting loud enough for all to hear, also listening to our footfalls, listening to the various directions we are each running to hide.  

10...11...12...

We each find a space, a spot that seems to be just our size, a covering that seems to be made just for us, perfectly waiting to hide us from the prying and determined eyes of the seeker.  We crouch down and try so slow our breathing and wipe the sweat from our brows.  We can hear the pounding of our hearts and are convinced that if the seeker comes near, he will hear it, too.  

18...19...20..."Ready or not, HERE I COME!"

We have only two hopes:  that our subterfuge will hold, and that the seeker will find someone else out before he finds us.  And so we wait.  We wait in silence and fear.  We wait like a prey worried by an imagined predator.  We crouch and pant and tense every muscle of our bodies only to stay still.  We try not to make a sound.  Try not to make a move.  Try to blend in to our immediate surroundings, our hiding place.  But we cannot.  We do not belong.  Our hiding place is not of us, and not for us.  We do not belong hidden away and crippled by fear.  We do not belong here, and we know it.  We know that we belong out in the open, and we know, as strange as it seems and as opposed as it is to our every effort, we know we belong trapped in the gaze of the seeker.  

Work. Hobbies. Relationships. Self improvement. Savings accounts. Subjective righteousness. These are our hiding places,  These are your hiding places.  These are the things in which you try to blend, in which you try to lose yourself.  But you cannot.  You do not belong there, and you know it.  You know, as strange as it seems and as opposed as it is to your every effort, you know you belong trapped in the gaze of the seeker.  And you know that He knows exactly where you are.

And as He asked in Eden, again He asks you now: "Why are you hiding?"

Ready or not, here He comes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Darwin’s Echo Before Dawn



This morning before dawn I heard Darwin’s echo in my own words.

Last evening, two of my students asked me to clarify and expand upon the meaning and use of metaphor, simile, and analogy in rhetoric, whether written or spoken. The ensuing discussion went something like this.

I reminded the students that verbal imagery, such as simile or metaphor, requires a trans-dimensional “warping” of language, viz, a marriage of otherwise incongruent words and ideas. For instance, the statements “Mary is a girl” and “Mary is like a girl” cannot be a metaphor or simile because the terms “Mary” and “girl” indicate the same dimension - “Mary” and “girl” both signify the human dimension. 

To create metaphor or simile, we must “marry Mary” to a word and idea from another dimension, such as “Mary is (or is like) a gazelle” because Mary runs swiftly and beautifully, or “Mary is (or is like) an angel” because Mary is sweet, benevolent, nurturing, and supportive. Comparing Mary to an entity in another dimension, such as a gazelle or an angel, creates the trans-dimensionality necessary for verbal imagery.  Beyond metaphor and simile is analogy.

Analogy expands, extends, or "stretches" a simile or metaphor. Rather than saying that “Mary is (or is like) an angel,” analogy stretches the trans-dimensional comparison and affirms that “Mary has wings” because she is always swift to fly to others' needs; that “Mary is radiant” because, like an angel, she brightens the hearts of those around her; or that “Mary is angelic” because she is lovingly and gently sensitive to others. The parables of Jesus are analogies that stretch metaphor and simile, such as when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a great net.” But Jesus does not stop with the simile; he expands it into an analogy. He stretches the simile by stating that “the great net” is “cast into the sea,” the “sea” representing humanity; the great net becomes “full,” indicating that the net “catches” all humanity; the great net is “drawn to shore,” signifying that the kingdom of God will eventually reach an eschatological terminus; and lastly He declares that the “fish” in the “great net” will ultimately be divided between “good fish” and “bad fish,” the “good fish” put into “vessels” and the “bad fish . . . cast away," denoting final judgment.

Subsequent to that discussion of the trans-dimensionality of symbolic language, we then considered the superiority of poetic language over didactic language, “superiority” in the sense that poetic language inherently possesses a greater power to illuminate the mind than merely instructional and declarative didactic language. Jesus Christ and Socrates personify the primacy of poetic language, both employing figurative language as the ultimate rhetorical device to lead their hearers to “higher truth,” examples of which would be Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the Savior’s Parables and “I am” metaphors, such as “I am the light.” To illustrate the point, I cited two examples in the Pauline corpus where Paul discusses very knotty theological ideas in didactic terms, but when his didactic rhetoric nears an epistemological limit, he resorts to poetic language. For example, in Galatians Paul provides a didactic discussion of a theology of works versus a theology of grace, but he crowns his didacticism with poeticism, specifically the Allegory of Sarah and Hagar. Similarly in Romans, when Paul explores the complexity of Israel’s national reprobation versus the salvation of the individual ethnic Jew, Paul again summons poetic language to elucidate and magnify his didactic point, specifically the Parable of the Vineyard. That discussion then led to our considering the ultimate purpose of symbolic language – the discovery of transcendent truth.

At this juncture I asked the students to pick up a writing instrument and draw a circle. I gave them thirty seconds to draw their circles and then asked the class, “Did you draw a circle?” to which they all replied, “Yes.” I then said, “No, you did not draw a circle; you drew something that approximates a circle.” I pointed out the circle I had drawn upon the board, and noted the imperfect curvature of my circle, simultaneously declaring that all of our attempts to draw a circle had in fact failed because all our circles were imperfect. Even if we could attempt to draw a circle with laser-like perfection, under an electron microscope we would see that the atomic and sub-atomic particles were unstable and wobbled, thus making the curvature of even the best circle inconsistent and therefore imperfect. I then recited the legendary saying above Plato’s Academy:
Let no one enter here who knows not geometry.
Plato understood that, although a mortal could never draw a perfect circle, the human mind could in fact conceive a perfect circle via geometric formula. Plato deduced, therefore, that the ability to conceive perfection testifies to the absolute reality of perfection despite failed human attempts to attain perfection. For instance, all human efforts to attain Justice; such as laws, lawyers, judges, courts, and politics; though imperfect expressions of, and flawed endeavors for, Justice; are nonetheless shadowy witnesses of Justice as a conceivable Absolute. From the imperfect circle that witnesses to the conceptual reality of a perfect Circle, Plato extrapolates that all imperfect human efforts towards Love, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in fact give evidence to those transcendent Absolutes as conceivable but not achievable through human endeavor, thus necessitating something philosophically equivalent to the geometric formula that proves conceptually a Perfect Circle. For Plato, that philosophical equivalent was a Celestial Guide who can lead us to contemplate and eventually discover the reality of Absolutes. In the Socratic dialogues, symbolic language is the ultimate rhetorical device to accomplish this realization of the Absolute. Thus, the highest purpose of figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, parable, or poetry, is to guide the mind into the sphere of transcendent truth.

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” his allegory leads his hearer to think upon the native human condition of intellectual darkness, viz, we are prisoners in a dark cave who have never seen “the light”; and thus the necessity of a celestial guide to descend into our darkness, liberate us from bondage, and guide us ever upward into the transcendent realm of illumination that we might behold what is absolutely Good, Beautiful, and True. Jesus Christ’s “I am” declarations function similarly so that our minds and hearts might, as it were, “take wings and fly” through and beyond the metaphors to celestial contemplation of what it means when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” or “I am the true vine.” But if figurative language actually and inherently possesses a capacity to elevate the mind to contemplate that which is transcendent, that capacity for transcendence necessarily demands an authentic celestial sphere of the Absolute: Absolute Beauty, Absolute Goodness, and Absolute Truth. I then remarked to my students,
Atheism has no poetry.”
The atheist can write a kind of poetry, but he cannot write the highest kind of poetry, the poetry of transcendence. The atheist poet has no claim upon metaphor, simile, parable, or analogy, all of which demand transcendence beyond the mechanics of language and the concreteness of meaning. The atheist poet who uses figurative language is thus a trickster, for his use of poetic devices that demand transcendence misleads the mind into a black hole where Nothing exists. His figurative language is only rhetorical deception. Neither can the atheist musician guide the soul into the sphere of sublime aesthetic experience. His music is merely sound waves caused by vibrating strings, hammered keys, and metal pedals manipulated by human hands. For the atheist musician, transcendence through music is but a destination-less journey into the dark vacuum of empty space. Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach are nothing but auditory masseurs who stimulate the flesh but do not pacify and ennoble the soul. The atheistic painter and sculptor never transcend the smears upon the canvas and the clay in the bust, and the atheist mathematician can never truly conceive, much less truly draw, a perfect circle that witnesses to absolute perfection.

So when I awoke before dawn and stepped outside to gaze at the stars, I heard Darwin’s echo in the words I had spoken the night before.

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. From The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Death of Robin Williams and the "Celebrity Effect"


I have tried to contemplate and envision Robin Williams' thoughts and actions leading up to his suicide. What was he thinking? What kind of desperation, self-pity, or self-loathing motivated him to affix a belt between the door and door frame just high enough to hang himself? How severe were the "acute" cuts on his wrist before he hanged himself, and why did he reject the razor for the rope? Too painful? Too bloody? One can hardly doubt that severe mental disorder and emotional strife were catalysts to his suicide, and the pending toxicology reports will answer our other suspicions.

Robin Williams was probably a genius; certainly he was brilliantly hilarious. I don't think in my lifetime I've ever seen or heard a sharper wit than his. How ironic that one so funny died so sadly.

Yesterday I wrote a simple post on Facebook that generated a flurry of responses:
I am sure some godly saint died somewhere today; it is only those whose death Yahweh calls "precious." That saint's death was infinitely more important than Robin Williams' death, and that saint's life infinitely more important than Williams' entire repertoire.
What motivated my Facebook post was my disgust at the public wailing and gnashing of teeth over Robin Williams' death, especially when the media and public turned their attention from more serious tragedies in the Mideast. I thought I was attending a Facebook funeral wake. One would have thought that the on-line mourners were immediate family or personal friends of the deceased. But that imagined familiarity is as flimsy as celluloid.

That's one thing popular media does to the human psyche, deceives us into believing that we really "know" someone, especially celebrities. It's a magical phenomenon, isn't it, that we, such negligible peons with unfulfilled lives, can be brought so apparently close to celebrities through media that we become emotionally attached to them and unconsciously imagine them to be our intimate chums?

We might call that "the celebrity effect."

The celebrity effect occurs in every sphere: athletics, politics, music, screen, stage, literature, and even religion. Certainly the celebrity effect testifies to our admiration of God-given talent, but admiration of celebrities too often, even commonly perhaps, transcends mere admiration and rises into the sphere of a cheap exchange of one's own life for vicarious fulfillment through the real or imaginary life of a celebrity. But the celebrity effect often goes far beyond admiration or vicariousness and devolves into idol worship. After all, what really are drunk-fest football games, riotous concerts, popular movies, the latest best-sellers, and raucous political rallies if not secular expressions of misguided hearts worshiping their idols? And most of those events are rife with vulgarity and sensuous imagery. No, I'm not saying that a Christian can't enjoy a television program, football game, or concert, but I am saying that these can be seductive detours from right thinking and living; for the ungodly, such events are most certainly expressions of secular worship. Whatever we love more than God, even if it's a child, is an idol.

If it's true that, "as a person thinks in his heart, so he is," then as we analyze the personalities and character of Joe and Jane Public, more often than not we shall find that their "thinking hearts" suffer from the celebrity effect. Jesus teaches us that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" and that "by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned." If one were to do a statistical evaluation of how frequently Jane or Joe speaks of politics, music, movies, or popular literature versus how frequently they speak about some meaningful or God-honoring topic, we wonder how many Joes or Janes would be "justified" versus "condemned" as a result of what Paul calls "empty conversation." What Joe and Jane say is not just proof of what they think in their hearts; what they say is also a measure of their character and a signature of who they really are. Too often their mouths testify that they are wandering and wondering zombies of the celebrity effect, hypnotized and brainwashed by popular media and entertainment. Worse, Joe and Jane are in fact unwitting idolaters who worship at the feet of secular gods.

The outpouring of grief for Robin Williams' death epitomizes the celebrity effect. I don't mean to suggest that Christians cannot grieve over Mr. Williams' death, should not pray for his family, or should not hope that his terrible example may be a warning to others. But Christians should be careful that they are not like Joe and Jane Public, unthinking victims of godless media that produce the celebrity effect.

I know, "we're all sinners." But even a cursory foray into the details and patterns of Robin Williams' life reveals that he was vulgar, promiscuous, hedonistic, self-destructive, extreme leftist in his morality and politics, and sometimes blasphemous. His religion was supposedly Episcopalian, but his life testified to ungodliness. 

I know that God takes "no pleasure in the death of the wicked." 

But we do. 

We heroize their deaths because we idolize their lives.

"Cursed is the person who makes an idol."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

God Gave Them Up

The opposite of love is not hatred, but apathy.

Before addressing the opposite of love, we should first consider the origin of love - God. The Bible clearly states “God is love” (I Jn 4). One writer labels love as “the bond of perfection,” which would corroborate with Paul’s pen, “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3.14, ESV). If you think about it, both the “binding” and “perfect” nature of love make sense when considering both the triune and eternal nature of the Godhead. Before God loved any other, the Godhead is bound in perfection; thus, God is love.

The same idea of binding love is also true among men, which is more to Paul’s point. The effectual nature of love is that it “binds (men) together in perfect harmony.”

I have heard it argued since God is love, He is incapable of hatred. As the point goes, God does not have the capacity for hatred since He is only and always benevolent, since he is always seeking to only “bind” men to Himself. The logic might even continue - it is a contradiction for God to be one thing and at the same time be its opposite. Since the opposite of love is hatred and God cannot contradict Himself, else he would cease to be God, God cannot hate. This view is really nothing more than the most popular contemporary view of God the Son - Jesus Christ. From the Vatican to the local Vineyard fellowship, “for God so loved the world” translated today means “for God only loves the world.”

On the point that God cannot contradict Himself I certainly agree. However, the logic used to support an idea that God is love and therefore cannot hate is wrong. It is bad logic mostly because hatred does not oppose love; rather, hatred is a companion to love. Hatred is a manifestation of love by other means, not its opposite. To hate one thing is always and necessarily to love another thing. In fact, hatred cannot be separated from love. Even in the extreme, the most non-sensical hatred for a certain thing or idea must be tied, however warped or non-sensical, to a certain other thing or idea that is loved, however much or little. Even if it is simply tied to a love for the nonexistence of that thing or idea that is hated, it is always related. Hatred does not exist in a vacuum. Neither does love.

To love one thing is always and necessarily to hate another thing. For example, if I love Ford, I might not necessarily hate Chevy. If I love the Longhorns, I might not necessarily hate the Aggies. But to truly love Ford or the Longhorns must mean that I must either not love Chevys or the Aggies as much, that I must dislike the idea of not loving Ford or the Longhorns, or that I actually do hate Chevys or the Aggies. Any of these scenarios would not only strengthen my love for Fords or the Longhorns, but it would also protect that love as well - strengthened because my love is wholly focused on the one and protected because my love for the one is not threatened by any love for another.

More practical and personal examples might be:
- Am I loving my wife if I do not hate anything that would threaten my love for her alone?
- Am I loving my children if I do not hate their disobedience?
- Am I loving the truth if I do not hate my own lies?
- Am I loving righteousness if I do not hate my own self-righteousness?

Otherwise, if it were possible for love to exist in a vacuum - where love might exist without the existence of hatred - then it would cease to exist at all. If it were possible that everything would be only loved, then nothing would be truly loved. Put another way, only when something or some idea is truly hated can some other thing or idea be truly loved. Therefore, the opposite of love is not hatred; rather, hatred of one thing is absolutely necessary in order to fully love another thing with strength and protection. Love needs hatred in order to fully display itself.

Jesus taught this concept when he spoke these harsh words, “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own live, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26 ESV). To say that we love one thing or idea must mean a hatred for another lesser or contrary thing or idea; otherwise, the love we claim to have is not really love.

The sine qua non moment in human history displays this concept as well. When God the Father’s hatred for sin is miraculously and mysteriously consumed by His Son on the cross, only then is the depth of love God has towards his own people fully revealed. Hatred for sin to the point of death is the only way His love is manifested into life.

Therefore, if fundamental in God’s love towards man is indeed a “bond” that makes “perfect,” then its opposite, that opposed to God’s love towards man, must have to do with separation from God, or more specifically, a separation that makes more imperfect.

On three occasions within four verses, Paul describes this type of separation as “God gave them up” (Romans 1). Wait a second...“God gave them up?” How is this even possible? Is this even possible? If God is love, how can He, even if temporarily, give up on someone? Wouldn’t this make God somehow apathetic, since giving up on someone must mean you no longer have any interest, enthusiasm or concern for them? Without looking back at Romans 1, if a place existed where "God gave them up," what would it look like? If a separation making imperfect were to manifest itself, how would that appear? Perhaps in a place like this:
- Where most of the time you would feel little to nothing at all about most everything
- Where ideas and opinions are rarely loved or hated but are always tolerated
- Where the goal is to plot your own course and to never face any real obstacles
- Where getting what you want when you want it is ultimate achievement
- Where being consumed by materialism, by events, by status is simply what everyone lives for
- Where morality is determined by what you can get away with
- Where it is possible for the illogical idea that all truth is only relative might be not only accepted, but standardized, and not only standardized, but championed as an ideal worth fighting for

Says a remarkable commentator, “the enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ is avenged by its success.” Perhaps the most frightening scenario to consider is not one where man is made to somehow see and know the wrath of God. Instead, the most frightening scenario begins with four simple words - "God gave them up." Where man is determined to separate God from his world, God often gives him exactly what he wants.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Everyone is Looking for You

"Crowd at Busy Street" by Petr Kratochvil


I struggle with the tension that exists between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa, the contemplative life versus the active life. 

The vita contemplativa, rightly lived, affords one the opportunity of silent, studious solitude that cultivates and nourishes the "life of the mind" and the "life of the soul." Necessarily isolationist, the vita contemplativa speaks "peace be still" upon the roaring waves of that restless and tumultuous ocean we call "humanity," anchoring the soul and mind within the safe harbor of solitude. So devoted am I to studious contemplation that, if my dawn breaks without serious and long meditation, my noonday is clouded and my sunset grey. The vita contemplativa also shelters me from the mindless din of "the savage herd," that "mass of men" who "lead lives of quiet desperation" and "vex" my soul "from day to day." I am quite inclined to Pascal's opinion, "All human evil comes from a single cause - man's inability to sit still in a room." Typically, I rise and begin my daily contemplation before dawn, and I am often reminded that Jesus Himself practiced the vita contemplativa, probably habitually, and "rose up early while it was dark and went to a solitary place." But I never remember that verse without noting what the anxious disciples said to Him - "everyone is looking for you."

"Everyone is looking for you" epitomizes that awful encumbrance upon the soul - "love thy neighbor." Sometimes I jokingly remark that I wish Jesus had not explained exactly who my "neighbor" is. Had He not done so, I could have exposited "neighbor" to mean fellow citizens of heaven who live next door and down the street from me on New Jerusalem Avenue but, alas, He defined my neighbor for me - anyone roughed up and robbed on the road to Jericho - and that's "everyone." When I dare look down upon the "everyone," how faithful is the Morning Dove to light upon my stony heart and coo, "I thank thee that I am not like other men," reminding me who prayed that prayer, and indicting the echoes of his arrogant voice in the hard places of my own soul. I also remember that "when He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." So the compunction of Providence compels me from the vita contemplativa to the vita activa, drives me out of my chair and onto the street to meet the Arab attendant and the Hindu tailor and the American pagan - all wounded, all in need of oil and wine and a place to lodge for the night, everyone of them looking, . . . unconsciously looking to be sure, but looking nonetheless . . . looking for Him . . . looking for me . . . looking for you . . .

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Adam and Inerrancy

Several months ago my local community college hosed a science & religion symposium. "Science and Religion Symposium," as you may know, is code for, "we're going to talk about evolution and how fundamentalist Christians are stupid for rejecting it."

It was a two-night affair, headlined by Karl Giberson, a Christian man who earned his doctorate in physics from Rice University in Houston. He's an interesting fellow, incidentally; he teaches writing and science-and religion at Stonehill College, and according to his online bio "Karl enjoys writing in his gazebo, listening to Bob Dylan, watching re-runs of Star Trek the Next Generation, and drinking Diet Coke." But for the limp libation I heartily endorse the man's pastimes.

Dr. Giberson gave a captivating talk, one-part biography, two-parts science-and-religion. He spoke of having grown up a fervent believer in a young earth, cultivating a desire to obtain a doctorate and go work for the Institute for Creation Science out in California, seeking to prove beyond doubt that the earth is 6,000 years old and no more. He went to college and was shocked that his Christian professors of science believed the earth was, in fact, billions of years old. Long story short, he's a convert to the old earth view, and like most converts, Dr. Giberson is very vocal about what it is he converted from.

Yet he came off as a gentle soul, answering questions from the crowd that he's probably responded to a thousand times before.

So I was sitting there, in this symposium, attended by 50 or so very old people and 50 or so college kids staring at their phones "earning" some sort of extra credit, and it dawned on me: what a strange, strange discussion. There is one group of people who believes the earth is billions of years old, and then there's another group who believes that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. Millions of years is not an option. Hundreds of thousands of years is not an option. It's billions, or a few thousand. There is no in-between.

The "Age of the Earth Debate!!!" has always interested me. I've never been all that intrigued by how the old the earth actually is, mind you. I just enjoy listening to the debate. Having enjoyed a pint many times while listening to various friends discuss the issue (not to mention watching innumerable videos online) I can sum up the debate. (YE = Young Earther; OE = Old Earther.)

OE: Why do you continue to believe in a young earth when astro-physicists, geologist, and biologists all proclaim the evidence says the earth is billions of years old?

YE: First, there are scientists who believe the earth is young. The scientific establishment silences their voices because they're operating from competing world views. But even if every scientist said the earth is billions of years old it wouldn't matter; the Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old, and ultimately that's my reasoning.

OE: Well, I don't mean to discount the renowned scientists produced by Liberty University and Orel Roberts... ahem, but the Bible does not say the earth is 6,000 years old. It offers a creation myth of the Hebrews which is clearly written in a different style than is Genesis 12 on, where the book slows down to focus on the history of Israel.

YE: Are you saying that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are untrue? Do you not accept that the Bible is inerrant? How can you even believe the resurrection, then?

OE: You know, the guy who coined the term "inerrancy" was open to an old earth. Regardless, i'm not saying that the firs 11 chapters of Genesis are untrue. I'm saying they're not intended as a literal, comprehensive history of the world, or as a rendition of the mechanics of how the universe was created. In other words, it lays the groundwork for the story of redemptive history, not the groundwork for science.

YE: Jesus and the apostle Paul believed Adam existed. Are you saying God himself, in the flesh, was wrong?

OE: I'm not saying that at all. Jesus wasn't offering a lesson on history, but a lesson on marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 6. The purpose of the dialogue from his perspective was not to pronounce the age of the earth ,but to show that divorce is wrong, and that Moses' laws regarding divorce were an accommodation to the sinful nature of man.

YE: Well, even if you think you have an explanation for Jesus' discussions of the Beginning, you cannot explain Paul's comments without explaining them away. Do you deny that Paul thought Adam was real?

OE: First, let's drop "real" and go with "historical." Paul likely thought Adam and Eve were historical people, or that the names "Adam" and "Eve" represented historical people. There is no question but that Paul sets up a First Adam/Second Adam construct, but this has little to do with history and everything to do with Redemption History. We are given the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis for a reason--a theological reason, not a historical or scientific reason. That theological reason is quite clear if you read Paul--sin has indeed come into the world through our original ancestors, whoever they may be, and the only one who can redeem is Christ.

YE: You are at the precipice. I'd have to give serious consideration as to whether one can reject the historical Adam and still be a Christian. Too much depends on it.

OE: Pauline analogies don't depend upon the historicity of Adam, but upon Adam as presented in Genesis. There's a critical difference there--Paul is using the creation account to display that man is fallen, but just as sin is presented as coming to the world through one man, so we are redeemed by one man.

YE: If sin didn't actually come to the world through the one man, then Paul's analogy loses all force, and we may as well reject his conclusions regarding Christ since they rest on faulting footing.

OE: If you think Paul's point is a historical one, then you needn't concern yourself with the historicity of Adam, for sin did not, in fact, enter the world through Adam if you take Geneses as literal. Let's count the number of sins that occur before Adam takes the fruit:

1. The serpent plans to lie to Eve;
2. The serpent lies to Eve;
3. Eve listens to the serpent without running away;
4. Eve misquotes the commandment;
5. Eve lusts after the fruit;
6. Eve desires to be like God;
7. Eve takes the fruit;
8. Eve eats the fruit.

That's no less than eight sins before Adam enters the picture. Surely the serpent brings the first sin into the world; surely Eve is the first human to sin. So if Paul is seeking to share history with us on how death came into the world, he's dead wrong. As soon as Eve sinned, she merited death. So I might ask you, then, do you think Paul was wrong about how sin came into the world? Does he give a sloppy reading of Genesis?

YE: Original Sin is passed down through Adam, as he is the federal head of mankind. Sin passes generation to generation through the man, not the woman.

OE: Original Sin came to the world through the Fall, which is not a person but a process explained in the first few chapters of Genesis in poetic terms. And sin passing physically through sperm is laughable, at best. All of creation has been affected by sin, and i suspect most of creation is... unsullied by the physical seed of man.

YE: Seriously, do you even believe in the resurrection? If you can so easily dismiss the Biblical, historical record on origins, how can you trust the Bible at all?

And so it goes, with OE eventually accusing YE of being a pernicious moron with his head in the ground and peddling fanciful ideas around that have nothing to do with reality, and YE accusing OE of denying Christ himself.

But what they're both really arguing about is the meaning of inerrancy. They'll both claim to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture but YE will accuse OE of rejecting inerrancy because OE rejects YE's hermeneutic. All the while OE won't accuse YE of rejecting inerrancy, but instead will accuse him of being blinded to scientific realities. One thinks his counterpart is stupid; there other thinks his counterpart may not even be a Christian.

This is a most dangerous dynamic. We, as Christians, should recognize that the text of Genesis 1-11 is open to debate as to its meaning. We should acknowledge that if facts are learned that challenge our interpretation of a passage, we need to rethink our interpretation. At the same time, OE Christians cannot expect YE Christians to reject their YE view in light of the theological import YE theologians place upon a literal reading of the Genesis creation account. Gentle discussion is necessary in this regard, and all sides of the debate need to acknowledge that our religion is about the god-man, Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, lived a life of obedience to the Father, was crucified for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day, and that he will come again to judge the quick and the dead.



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Life from Death

Life from death is perhaps the most powerful motif in all of Scripture. It begins, of course, with “In the beginning,” and goes right on through to the resurrection of the saints and the new heavens and new earth. The image of life appearing out of death is moving because it’s absurd, eschewing reason in favor of imagination and meaning. The doctrines of Paul are wonderful and challenging and true and good, but greater meaning is found in our Savior’s resurrection from the dead and the promise that he is the firstborn among many brethren.

God saw that the earth was without form, and void. He caused life to spring therefrom. The ground itself was to produce the beasts of the field; the dust of the earth was to make man.

Moses knew the power of life springing from death. Aaron’s rod that miraculously budded, life-giving waters flowing from a stone, even the blood of the lambs covering the doors of the Hebrew people all portend the gospel.

But then there is Abraham. No mortal figure in the Bible is more stunning than father Abraham. The great patriarch of the Jews, the man who would kill his own son because he believed that the God of heaven would resurrect his boy if only he was obedient to the divine command, Abraham knew of life coming from death. And the courage that lifted his dust-caked sandals and burdened heart up the imposing mountain in Moriah came from experience. For Abraham had seen life appear from death, even in his own house.

When we read the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth, we think of it in terms of a miracle in Sarah’s womb. Indeed, it was that, but it was more. The ancient near east view of reproduction thought of the man’s semen as being a “seed” that was planted, so to speak, in the woman. It’s easy to see why they had this view, given what they saw in agriculture—the barley seed falls to the ground, where it grows into more barley. So the thought was that the woman was akin to the soil and the man would, ahem, plant his seed in the woman, thus the thought of earth as a “mother” in the ancient world. So when Abraham impregnated Hagar, it was clear at that point that Sarah was the only issue---she wasn’t fertile, but he was.

Some thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God promised Abraham that he would conceive again, this time with his barren wife. Abraham was understandably incredulous, asking how a 99 year-old man could sire a child. Paul rightly understood Abraham’s response as his recognizing that his loins were dead, as was Sarah’s womb. The birth of Isaac was a double miracle. Powerful, because it was impossible; meaningful because it was absurd.

In my own life, I have twice seen life come from death, with both the adoption of my son and the pending birth of my daughter. We cannot conceive. Yet life came into our home through the miraculous placement of a hundred dollar bill, a substitute court reporter, and a dozen other events providentially woven together to form one cohesive miracle. Life first appeared, not in a delivery room surrounded by nurses, doctors, and the sterile equipment of the modern birth, but in a run-down McDonald’s in a small East Texas town, where flies had infested the dining area, eight television screens blared some talking head griping about the economy, and an elderly woman ate a cheeseburger while her husband, donning a mesh-back ballcap perched on his head like he was a 1980s trucker, hunted one of the flies with a napkin. A miracle delivery in an utterly normal, ho-hum, everyday place: precisely the kind of miracle God seems to love most.

And life has come again, though my body was, like Abraham’s, without life, God “quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”

Two lives where life could not be. These miracles within my household typify the beauty and majesty of the gospel. They shout, “Jesus saves” in a way didactic reasoning never could. The miraculous in our everyday lives represent God’s way of preaching the gospel to the world. This is why we are not simply told that God can win battles, we are instead given the book of Joshua. The mechanics of the resurrection are never recited; we are told of Lazarus and the magnificent-yet-puzzling, dare I say mystical, statement, “I am the resurrection.” Justification is not only explained in forensic terms; we have the life and the Passion of our Savior.  

The ancient formulation of the holy and transcendent is that which is good, true, and beautiful, elements with which we are all very familiar, though not necessarily trained to see. And we are blessed to live in a world where the transcendent can appear in our communities, our churches, and our homes and yet somehow be normal. Here we see the power of the child’s imagination. A black bunny appeared in our backyard last year. My wife and I were fascinated with it, as it came back three or four days in a row. But our son, then two years old, thought it was no more interesting than the squirrels, the birds, or the newspaper that magically appeared on our walk each morning. It wasn’t that he didn’t have an appropriate appreciation for the rarity of a black bunny rabbit. Rather, he was already fascinated by the beauty of our world. In his mind, “Why shouldn’t a black bunny hippity-hop over to our azaleas?” Our unwavering parental focus on the black bunny for a few days served to remind us how numb we had become to the robin’s chirp, the squirrel’s scamper, and the morning dew glistening on a red rose. The world is amazing, rich, and mysterious.

It didn’t have to be so. The world didn’t have to be a place where flowers bloom, where food tastes good, or where music could ring forth from a dead tree fashioned just so with some strings. The world didn’t have to be a place where the parentless can find a mother and father, or where the barren could both adopt and conceive. And it certainly didn’t have to be a place where sinners are glorified, to be conformed into the image of Christ; where we are invited to participate in his divine nature. But praise God it is!


“Thy life’s a miracle; speak yet again.”

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dantean Equipose

An old poem appropriate for Valentine's Day . . .

There is a great gulf fixed
Twixt Heav’n and Hell
Spanned only by a lonely Bridge of Light.
Poets say its struts and strands are made of angels bright.
Amongst them, one of Roman race,
Stained his quill that he might trace their flight.

He sought to view fair Paradise
Midway through his darkling wood,
Raised his head and strained his heart to see it, if he could.
Stare as he might, through starry night,
No pearl-faced gates he viewed,
No emerald-circled rainbow throne with heaven’s grace imbued.

His head bowed low, his weeping heart
Convulsed him at the thought,
That he, the poet, could not write the Bridge that Blood had bought.
‘Twas then that, in his sore despair, a voice beckoned his soul,
“Who is it there?” the poet asked, and then She said, “Behold!”

“I am Beatrice fair, thou lover of my soul,
“I am your Bridge to Paradise, Beautiful, Bright, and Bold.
“I am Heav’n come down, to wing your flight
“Across that bridge you seek,
“So sheathe thy quill and follow me. Be quiet, quick, and meek.”

At her firm word his stir-red soul arose from its despair,
And followed fast the Lady Fair who winged him through the air,
Up to the very throne of God where prostrate now he lay,
And heard another, stronger Voice, that hushed all others, say,

“How came ye, weary traveler? How came ye to this Place?”
“I was guided by Another,” saith he, “She of radiant face.”
“Ah, yes,” then did the Sovereign say, “Ah, yes, I know her well.
“Beatrice well has led the souls of many men from hell.”

At this the poet turned to her, gazed in her lovely face,
And said, “I thank thee, beauteous Lady Fair, who led me to His Grace.
“I thank thee, Bridge of Light that poets told,
"Thou' art She who sav-ed me, imparadised my soul."