29 October 2009

The Jogging Monk and Exegesis Of The Heart

Being a disciple is simple, but not necessarily easy since the heart needs to be supple. Reflecting on this, here is an article from a man who was in seminary and his struggle:

The Jogging Monk And Exegesis Of The Heart

How to go beyond simple understanding to hearing Scripture speak

By James Brian Smith

During my second year of seminary, the spiritual moorings of my life came loose. I decided to go on a five-day silent retreat at a northeastern Episcopalian monastery to try to reclaim the spiritual warmth I had somehow lost.
Upon arrival I was assigned a monk who would be my spiritual director. He walked into our meeting room with jogging clothes underneath his cowl. I was disappointed. I had been expecting an elderly man, bearded to his knees, who would penetrate my soul with searing blue eyes. Instead, I got "the jogging monk."
My director gave me only one task for the day: meditate on the story of the Annunciation in the first chapter of Luke's gospel. I walked back to my cell, wondering how I would occupy my time with only this one assignment. After all, I thought to myself, I could exegete this entire text in a few hours. What was I to do for the rest of the day-in silence?
Back at my cell I opened my Bible to the passage and began reading. For the next hour I spliced and diced the verses as any good exegete would do, ending up with a few hypotheses and several hours to sit in silence. As the hours passed, the room seemed to get smaller. There was no view to the outside through the window of my room. Without any view to the outer world, I was forced to look within. Despite my hopes of finding spiritual bliss, I had never felt more alone.

What else is there?
The next day I met with the monk again to discuss my spiritual life. He asked what had happened with the assigned text. I told him that I had come up with a few exegetical insights. I thought my discoveries might impress him.
They didn't.
"What was your aim in reading this passages" he asked.
"My aim? To arrive at an understanding of the meaning of the text, I suppose."
"Anything else?"
I paused. "No. What else is there?"
"Well, there's more than just finding out what it says and what it means. There are also questions like, 'What did it teach you? What did it say to you? Were you struck by anything?' And most importantly, 'Did you experience God in your reading?'"
He assigned the same text for the day, asking me to begin reading it not so much with my head but more with my heart.
I had no idea how to do this. For the first three hours I tried and failed repeatedly. I practically had the passage memorized and still it was lifeless, and I was bored. The room seemed even smaller, and by nightfall 1 thought I would go deaf from the silence.
The next day we met again. In despair I told him that I simply could not do what he was asking. It was then that the wisdom beneath the jogging clothes became evident: "You're trying too hard, Jim. You're trying to control God. You're running the show. Go back and read this passage again. But this time, be open to receive whatever God has for you. Don't manipulate God; just receive. Communion with Him isn't something you institute. It's like sleep. You can't make yourself sleep, but you can create the conditions that allow sleep to happen. All I want you to do is create the conditions: open your Bible, read it slowly, listen to it, and reflect on it."

I went back to my cell (it had a prison-like feel by now) and began to read. I found utter silence. After an hour I finally shouted, "I give up! You win!" I slumped over in my chair and began to weep. I suspect it was for my failure that God had been waiting.

Let it be to me.
A short time later 1 picked up the Bible and read the passage again. The words looked different despite their familiarity. My mind and heart were supple as I read. I was no longer trying to figure out the meaning or the main point of the passage. 1 was simply hearing it.
My eyes fell upon the famous words of Mary: "Let it be to me according to your word," her response to God's stunning promise that she would give both to His Son. Let it be to me. The words rang in my head. And then God spoke to me.
It was as if a window had been thrown open and God was suddenly present, like a friend who wanted to talk. What followed was a dialogue about the story in Luke, about God, about Mary, and about me. I wondered about Mary-her feelings, her doubts, her fears, and her incredible willingness to respond to God's request.
This prompted me to ask (or the Spirit moved me to ask) about the limits of my obedience, which seemed meager in comparison to Mary's. "Do not be afraid," said the angel to Mary. We talked about fear. What was I afraid of? What held me back?
"You have found favor with God," the angel told Mary. Had I found favor with God? 1 sensed that I had, but not because of anything 1 had done (humility had become my companion in that room). I had found favor because 1 was His child.
I wondered, too, about the future, about my calling. What was God wanting of me? Mary had just been informed of her destiny. What was mine? We talked about what might be-what, in fact, could be, if I were willing.
I had reached the end of my rope and was, for the first time in a long time, in a position to hear. Desperation led me to begin praying. My prayer was really a plea: help me. After an hour of reflecting and listening, Mary's "Let it be to me according to your word" eventually became my prayer. The struggle had ended.
The room that had seemed small now seemed spacious. The silence no longer mattered, no longer made me anxious, but rather, seemed peaceful. And the terrible feeling of being alone was replaced by a sense of closeness with a God who was "nearer to me than I was to myself."

The Word exposed in the Words.
Before my retreat, I would have laughed if someone had tried to tell me that my real problem was not prayer or meditation or personal discipline, but that it was my inability to read the Bible. After all, to me, an evangelical with a touch of Wesleyan pietism, the Bible was sacred. I had memorized 2 Timothy 3:16 early on as a Christian.
I had studied under brilliant Bible scholars and maintained a high view of authority and inspiration. Even my Bible could attest to the hours I labored to understand it, covered as it was with marginal notes and multicolored "highlighter" markings. Like Paul, I list my achievements to point a finger not at me but at the God who redirected my ways.
Quite simply, I had forgotten that there is much more to reading the Bible than merely understanding the words on the pages. Learning how to study the Bible was an important and essential skill. However, I had lost "the ears to hear" anything beyond that kind of study.

What I relearned in my room was how the Bible should be read, namely, with an ear to what the text might be saying to me. Simply doing responsible exegesis is not enough, as enlightening as it often is. The next steps are listening to the text, reflecting on it, and asking not merely what it means, but what it is asking of me, what it is asking me to hear.
What I had been unable to understand was what Søren Kierkegaard called the "contemporaneity" of the Bible. The past does not merely parallel but actually intersects the present. The Christ who called His disciples to follow Him is calling each of us at this moment. I had been reading the Bible as if it were describing a world in which I might find parallels. I now came to understand that when I read the Bible, I am reading about a world that in some sense also now is.
For example, I had been prone to read the story of God's call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac by saying, "Boy, Abraham sure had a tough decision. I am glad I am not in his shoes." Now I see that I cannot read it only that way. Why? Because I am in Abraham's shoes. God sometimes calls me to sacrifice my most precious possession. The story has much to say to the present.
I had to relearn that the Bible is a book aimed primarily at the will of the reader. I was afraid to hear what the Bible might say because I suspected it might ask me to change my life. It did. When I was "running the show," as the monk observed, I could sidestep the contemporaneity of the Bible. Mary was Mary, and I could observe her dilemma and even write a good sermon about it. But now it was my dilemma. Could I-will I-say, "let it be to me"?
Finally, I relearned that reading the Bible requires what the saints of old called "contemplation." It was in solitude and silence that the noise and hurry of the world finally ceased long enough for me to hear. There was not enough silence in my life for me to hear the Word within the words, and I knew that deep down, which is why I went on a silent retreat in the first place. Now I have learned that silence is possible outside the haven of a monastery, but I still have to work to find it.
I also learned that contemplation is more than just silence. The monk's insistence that I stay with the same passage for three days unnerved me. Now I understand what he was trying to do. Contemplation requires deep reflection, repetition, patience, and persistence. The veil that covered my heart would not be removed by a single reading. I needed then, and still need, to read it slowly, until the words strike a chord within me. Once they strike, I am able to let them resonate.

A new world opens up.
The end of the retreat was much better than the beginning. My "jogging monk" was pleased to see that I had relearned how to read the Bible. He gave me different passages to meditate on for the remainder of the retreat, and, like Mary, I was able to "ponder" them in my heart. I felt what an illiterate person must feel on learning how to read. A new world opened up.
Seminary, too, became more of a joy. I finished that year and my final year with a new way of looking at the Bible. I found that there can be a happy marriage between textual study and contemplation, viewing them not as competing but complementary. One without the other feels incomplete. Now, five years later, I feel that any day on which I do not open the Bible and let the words descend from my head into my heart, letting them mold my thoughts and shape my prayers, is wasted.
Unlike the room at the monastery, I now have a beautiful view outside my window. Now and then I close the shades.

  • James Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School, Ph.D., Fuller Seminary) is a theology professor at Friends University in Wichita, KS and a writer and speaker in the area of Christian spiritual formation. A founding member of Richard J. Foster's spiritual renewal ministry, Renovaré, Smith is an ordained United Methodist Church minister and has served in various capacities in local churches. Smith is the author of A Spiritual Formation Workbook, Devotional Classics (with Richard Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven and Room of Marvels.

Caution: Handle with Care or You May Get Loved Up

Bravo for you, you’ve run from God all your life and now what do you find? Where are you? I can guess that if you’re conscious, then your suffering. Don’t get me wrong, not all suffering takes on the same outlook. Psychological, emotional suffering can be more excruciating than physical suffering. I think suffering comes in varieties. 

Here are at least two forms:

Variety 1 is "Cost and Loss" - a normal life suddenly is betrayed, a normal body fails, a business or nation falls apart, and family, friends, face, and finances are lost. In despair a person reaches for God and finds His comfort and solace, and he finds it. God never fails a sincerely seeking heart.

Variety 2 is "Gain and Lost" - a sense of pervasive lostness. This person is similar to a King Solomon, who suffered pain and weariness in the middle of all his greatness. This might be a person who has achieved or is given extraordinary advantages and gifts, and finds great financial or abundance, loads of friends, a good name, a "name in the field," a person of prominence and of influence. Simultaneously, the person finds he's lost all zest for life, his family and friends are boring, and nothing gives him the "zing" he craves. A person living Variety 2 suffering is on the razor's edge-in a great war between the despair of nothingness and the pull of "there-has-to-be-more" in his heart.

Where is God? God is there-was there-and is waiting, as aptly described in this poem:

The Pulley

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
"Let us" (said he)"pour on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span."

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow'd, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

"For if I should" (said he)
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be

"Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast."

→ George Herbert

So, what if you dared to try the most radical, revolutionary idea-that God loves you and His love and faithfulness would never fail you? That He will satisfy the desires of your heart, those desires which you cannot even put a name to? You can dare believe it because it is the very thing Christ said? This is no psychological trick. No, here we are speaking directly to the Soul-Maker about Soul-sickness. Your Soul-sickness. Could be the Soul-Maker has the elixir for the Soul?

What if you believed it? What would be so terrible about that? How can you fail in your failure? After all, you know that, apart from the love of God, you will and are–right now-failing, in every area. We cannot remake the world-the best men in history have failed.

Only Christ succeeded-and that at the cost of giving away His love for you, specifically and individually. And, no, you didn’t deserve, it—but that’s because love cannot be earned.

Charity Johnson

Would you prefer the truth or love?

Jesus has the first and last word on love:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34, 35)

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. (John 15: 12, 13)

...when (the Holy Spirit) has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (John 16:8)

Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; (John 17:18, 20)

...for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. (John 17:19)

In God's Kingdom truth and love are one and the same.

God's Odd Math of Love

Agape, the sacrificial kind of love from God given to mankind, which is lived out in action is the only common ground between the genders, across the tribes, and nations and cultures. It is what enables a person to be selfless but not pitiful; to be forgiving and yet strong; to be humble but not cowardly; to be a crusader but not a conqueror and overtaker. A person who loves with agape love has more love the more he gives it away.
It is what makes life for the Christian one “Great Giveaway.”

  • Charity Johnson

“Even friendship finds rocks to founder on, for though its sea is immense, it has shores. [Yet, the apostle] Paul announces the exception when he tells us: ‘Love [agape] never ends.’ (I Corinthians 13). …One day everything will be made of agape. All those things that we made of agape in this world will last… But nothing else. The only thing that will not be burned up in the final fire is the one thing that is stronger than the fire of destruction: the fire of creation. For agape is the fire of creation.

God created out of agape. Just as the only way to conquer a passion is by a stronger passion, just as the only way to conquer an evil love is by a stronger good love, the only way to endure the final fire is not by any water that tries to put it out, but by the only fire that is stronger still: agape. This is the very fire of God’s essential being. Only love is stronger than death. (p 91)
[Eventually] lovers of God [will] become one with the fire of their Beloved. …British poet Stephen Spender wrote their epitaph: ‘Born of the sun, they traveled a brief while toward the sun and left the vivid air tinged with their honor.’

That is what a Christian is. Not to be one is life’s only real tragedy.” (p.93)
  • Peter Kreeft, from The God Who Loves You

The Thing Only You, and not God, Can Do

(On Love’s Surpassing Value )
“…(in I Corinthians 13) Paul says love is even greater than faith…(though) faith is even greater than understanding in this life. The whole Christian life begins in faith, progresses in faith, and culminates in faith. Only in heaven will knowledge replace faith when we no longer see “through a glass, darkly” but face to face…. Jesus was constantly exhorting people to faith and bemoaning their lack of faith. For faith is the golden key that unlocks the doors of our life to God’s presence and power. There was nothing that Jesus sought more than faith, except love. Faith is the necessary beginning of the Christian life, but love is its consummation. Faith exists for the sake of love, as the root exists for the sake of the fruit, as the beginning exists for the sake of the end. Even faith, without the works of love, is dead (James 2:26). But even the works of love are no substitute for love itself.

(Yet) Paul mentions that (all) is nothing without agape (love)... For instance, I can give away all that I have and even let my body be burned in suffering as a martyr, but it is all for naught without love. You can be a martyr without love: an angry, hateful martyr. A terrorist suicide bomber is not an apostle of love. Even good deeds without love are nothing, for God does not want deeds first of all but hearts.

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalms 50:10). He does not need anything from us. God could perform all the deeds He desires, but even He cannot give Himself one thing: our free love. That is the thing that is most precious of all to Him, and He has put it in our charge!”

Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You! (p. 76, 77)

God cannot make you love Him.

Losing Face and Loving It

Not feeling the love?

Words in the previous post don't make it happen. Yeah, so, there are great reasons to love God, but a person does not choose to love God simply because reason dictates. Obviously, or it wouldn't be love. (Even in "real world" examples this doesn't happen. Perhaps someone pretends to love someone else and goes through all the right motions to get a certain “reward” – but this either tapers off and dies out or he gets found out. There are many traditions, where this is acceptable and encouraged behavior for a mate, because as he behaves lovingly, he does indeed begin to love.)

But here we are talking about faith in the God who loves us-and I know making a strong argument for someone to succumb to His love cannot in any universe make you love Him. A good argument will not propel you into the Arms of Him who loves you. Nor should it, or it would not be love.

If you ask “why” I love someone—you’ll find it has no answer—rather the answer is wrapped up in the individual. Now, if you and I both love the same person, you wouldn't even think of asking such a question. So it is with loving God, too. I know why I love God-and it's all about Him. Yet, reasoning cannot create motivation to love God, it cannot. Reason is important and certainly informative-and we want our consciences and minds understanding our Love as well as possible, but that is in the realm of information.

No,one needs an encounter Him-a face-to-face, intense and extended encounter wherein all you can do is feel the burning desire behind His love. Comprehension may begin to dawn at that moment you encounter the self-giving love, much like it does in our human relationships.

So then, what does it all boil down to, this actual breaking-through to the love of God?

First, an unbelieving person has no ability within himself to access the love of God—though he accesses many other kinds of love. Accessing the love of God is exclusive—exclusive to lovers of God. It’s simple, but it’s difficult.

Secondly, resistance to faith in God is a moral, not an intellectual problem, normally. There are plenty of ways to get answers to honest questions. What a man fears most is losing face before his peers, so he resists faith, and loses the possibility of entering into enjoying the love of God.

But, what about the “price?” Isn’t it costly to love God this way? Yes-and no.

One only gains through loving, even when something is sacrificed. The man who elopes with his lover finds himself an old man with a mate who is sure she was chosen and exclusive. Yes, it cost him something-maybe his familial relationships, perhaps he lost status or an inheritance-but the gain surpassed the loss. A man who chooses to love God may lose face, possibly money or position, family ties may be strained, but he gains a joy in the love of God, which sustains him in life and which can not be bought and which cannot be replicated.

  • Charity Johnson

Let's see how the apostle Paul compared the cost:
(I was)…of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.
Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ. …indeed... I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord... (Philippians 3:5-10)

The Sky is God's Billboard, Saying "I love you!"

Now and then, in films and television, a sentence slips out which reveals the writer(s)’ faith-or lack thereof. This is a distracting, and sometimes troubling aspect.

On one level I wonder about the gratuitous “unbelief” – the assumption is made that no educated and intelligent human being would believe in a god he couldn’t see (as if it would make more sense to believe in one you could see?). I wonder about it because it seems like a case of “thou doest protest too much” – is the Irresistible Lover of Man’s Soul so hounding the writer that he has to regularly announce his position to the world and to He-Who-Does-Not-Exist?

It’s distracting for two reasons: one, it’s frustrating because he’s opened up what should be a dialogue, and there is no avenue for a response from the listener. In my most recent exposure to “Faithless Flasher,” the other actor’s response was silent consent. Secondly, I forget the storyline and think, about the many people who hear those throw-away lines, about how often in my lifetime I have heard it.

It really gets me thinking when I consider the writer who penned those lines: what is his/her life like at the moment, what propelled him to insert these vague and unnecessary lines.
The most recent lines heard went like this, “Look at these believers. (digust) The definition of schizophrenic is to believe in something you can’t see.”
Of course, that is not the “definition” of schizophrenia. If it were, most of humanity would be defined as schizophrenics—add to that all of the past ages of humanity, as well. That statement bothered me because it is not only untrue, but it also is a reaction and not a thoughtful statement. Schizophrenia is a mental illness which puts someone outside the “norm” – the standard for “norm” being that which is acceptable to most people. For most people on earth, believing in God or a god(s) is “normal.”
Then came the character's next theological mis-statement: “God can’t exist because I can’t see Him. What is real is stuff like science, stuff you can see.
This is a philosophically problematic. If “stuff you can see” is “believable” then what about things in time (the future)? Will there be no future because it is comprised of “stuff you can’t see?” Or theories? What about theories such as probability- many theories we used to make “stuff you can see.” It’s a ludicrous statement for many reasons.
Then there is the problem, which I see as laziness. The reasoner is too lazy to move beyond the finite and concrete to difficult thoughts which impose stern restrictions. If the reasoner chooses this route, it seems that reasoner must have his own motive (selfishness, perhaps?). To climb out of being trapped in the Münchhausen-Trilemma, I suggest going directly to the 3rd place. We need to find something axiomatic which will allow us to break off our searching (and rather than continual searching or cicular reasoning). If we can find that which is will be sufficient reason to suspend our search for reasons, then we have sufficient evidence. I am suggesting that that “axiomatic point” in our reasoning be this: to conclude that there is a omniscient, omnipotent, Creator God who is involved in “stuff we can see” as well as stuff we cannot see. That makes a beginning point for other things, seen and unseen. That is Reason enough for me.  

  • Charity Johnson
Before I finish here, I need to leave you with a quote from Kreeft regarding this Creator God:

Bernard of Clairvaux said that when he looked at the cross, the wounds of Christ seemed like lips speaking to him and saying, "I love you." Everything is like that. Everything is God's lips speaking love. That is God's message to us in every thing. Everything has its meaning between God and us, not in itself. Everything it relative to this absolute. This way of looking at things, as gifts and signs rather than simply as things in themselves, is not our usual way of seeing. Try this new way for just one hour and see the difference it makes. See the sunrise as not a mindless, mechanical necessity but as God's smile. See a wave not just as tons of cold salt water crashing down on the shore but as God's playful action. See even death as not a biological necessity but as God trucking us in at bedtime so that we can rise to new life in the morning.

This is not a trick we play on ourselves of a fantasy. This is what the world really is. It is just as true to say that every snowflake is a gift of God as it is true to say that every cent in a father's inheritance is a gift to his children. It is just as true to say that every leaf on every tree is a work of art was made by the divine Artist with the intention that we see it, know it, love it, and rejoice in it, as it is true to say that every word in a lover's letter to his beloved is meant to be seen, known, loved, and enjoyed. This is not fantasy. What is fantasy is the horrible habit of the modern world has gotten itself into, the habit of thinking that what the world really is is only atoms and chance, only what the senses and science reveal and everything else is mere subjective fantasy.

  • Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You, page 20

Overcome by God's Love

If all the seas with ink would fill
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every pen on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the whole contain the scroll
Though stretched from sky to sky.

The Giving Love of God is NOT a Zero-Sum Game

... a popular heresy [of the past], imported from Greek and Islamic philsophy, was that God knows and loves only
universal species and concepts, not individual persons.[The thought was}..God would demean Himself by caring
for individuals ...but..the God of the Bible works. He cares. He broods over His people like a mother hen...-
because He is love and love is always particular.

But particularity sounds snobbish to many people. How are the Jews claim to be the chosen people? The incarnation [of Christ] itself has been called by some universalist scholars “the scandal of particularity.” How dare God be so discriminatory as to pick out individuals for special merit? Not the rest of the world, but Abraham; not Ishmael, but Issac; not Esau, but Jacob. And Moses, Mary, Peter and Paul. Throughout Bible history God is not egalitarian. This is particularly hard for Americans to accept.
….God is not an American…God is a lover. Americanism—[carries with it the] ideal of equality, and love knows nothing of equality. …to the eyes of love the beloved is not equal to others but unique. If comparison is made at all, the beloved is always the best. But love does not compare, it just loves.

The lover does not love his beloved’s eyes because they are perfect. They are perfect because he loves her. He does not love her because she has beautiful black hair. He loves black hair because: ‘Black, black, black is the color of my true love’s hair.”

But then what becomes of univsality? That is also a divine truth. God loves not just some but all. But he loves all individually. Put abstractly, the probem is this: we want both concreteness and universality. We want neither a love that stops with the abstract universal nor a love that stops with only one concrete individual, but a love that is both concrete and universal.

[The philosopher] Hegel’s solution was to start with the universal, which is the philosopher’s temptation, and to declare it concrete. His god knows and loves “the concrete universal.” Like Plato, Hegel thought that abstractions like humanity or the state were things in themselves. He thought they were more real than individual things and were the proper objects of belief and love for both God and man.

The Bible…[puts forth] just the reverse. Scripture starts with the particular and then universalizes it. You are called to love your concrete individual neighbor and then to realize that every individual is your neighbor. The point is not to destroy concrete neighborhood in a fit of universalism but to expand the local neighborhood and embrace the universal neighborhood.
This is exactly what parents do with their children. They love them all, but they love them each. That is why Father is the best analogy for God. Good parents are not particular in an exclusive way by loving this child but not that one. Nor are they universal in an abstract way by loving all in general but no one in particular. Rather, they are universally particular by loving each totally and specially. Love works by a wholly different mathematics than the mathematics of finitude, in which equality becomes division. In math, if I give you half, I have only half left for myself or for another. But love gives all to each and loses nothing.

Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You, 157-159.

Jesus Christ Tells of His Love for You

“he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.
Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.
All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.
As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.”

(John 10: 2-5;7-11;14-17)
All we can say in response is "WOW!" especially in light of:
Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

(I John 3:1-3)

When You Just Don't Feel Loving....

The highest priority God gives us in life is to love him wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Yet, this can be a struggle for the most kind-hearted Christian. Regarding this dilemma, C. S. Lewis wrote:

"But though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings. Some people are “cold” by temperament; that may be a misfortune for them, but it is no more a sin than having bad digestion is a sin; and it does not cut them out from the chance, or excuse them from the duty, of learning charity.
The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his “gratitude” you will probably be disappointed. (People are not fools: they have a very quick eye for anything like showing off, or patronage.) But whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more, or, at least, to dislike it less.
Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or “likings” and the Christian has only “charity.” The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning….
Some writers use the word charity to describe not only Christian love between human beings, but also God’s love for man and man’s love for God. About the second of these two, people are often worried. They are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feelings in themselves. What are they to do? T he answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, “If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?” When you have found the answer, go and do it."

  • C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan Publishing Company, Touchstone edition, 1996), pp. 116-117.

More On Pride (Moron Pride?)

Pride most prominently displays itself in narcissism and other forms of self-centeredness.

Yet pride also wears masks. For example, pride can be masked as autonomy (self-independence) or by relational distance. It surfaces when one is hyper-critical, defensive, questioning, resentful about authority, and being overly sensitive. Then again, if one is in authority, perhaps it shows up as being either demanding of people (and self)-or the reverse may be operating: and one might try to curry favor by not expecting much of anything to gain popularity points. Still in what form it takes outwardly, pride is certainly a deeply tangled root.

One of the added difficulties with pride is that when you put your mind to working at not being prideful, it shows up in one of its variants - as self-pity, self-flagellation or even of self-sacrifice but motivated by vanity.

Judges 9 is a good illustration of the haughty kind of pride that sets itself up against the God versus self-respect or "healthy pride"- which is doing what one was designed to do:

Judges 9:5-15
5 Then he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, because he hid himself.
6 And all the men of Shechem gathered together, all of Beth Millo, and they went and made Abimelech king beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem.
7 Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and cried out. And he said to them:
“Listen to me, you men of Shechem,
That God may listen to you!
8 “The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them.
And they said to the olive tree,
‘Reign over us!’
9 But the olive tree said to them,
‘ Should I cease giving my oil,
With which they honor God and men,
And go to sway over trees?’
10 “Then the trees said to the fig tree,
‘You come and reign over us!’
11 But the fig tree said to them,
‘ Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit,
And go to sway over trees?’
12 “Then the trees said to the vine,
‘You come and reign over us!’
13 But the vine said to them,
‘ Should I cease my new wine,
Which cheers both God and men,
And go to sway over trees?’
14 “Then all the trees said to the bramble,
‘You come and reign over us!’
15 And the bramble said to the trees,
‘If in truth you anoint me as king over you,
Then come and take shelter in my shade;
But if not, let fire come out of the bramble
And devour the cedars of Lebanon!

The Link between Pure Love and Clear Vision

“The key to discerning God’s will is not intellectual but volitional. The heart is the head’s educator here. The secret of discernment is “ordo amoris”[or] “the order of love.”
If we do not have this proper order of love, if we upset the hierarchy of things and love some mere thing instead of God at the center of our lives, then this first and fundamental error will generate a second.” We will develop an obsession with whatever idol we have put in God’s place. No one can treat God as a creature without also treating some creature as God, for we are made with both creature-shaped holes and God-shaped holes in us. We cannot live without filling them. The trouble is, the real God won’t fit into the creature-shaped hole, so we have to trim God down to our size. And a creature won’t fill up the God-shaped hole, so we have to keep running to more and more creatures to try to plug the gap. It is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with marbles.
The process of living creatures as if they were God, trying to fill the God-hole with creature-pegs, always becomes obsessive because we cannot stop and cannot succeed. Obsession always clouds the mind. On bit of beclouding that always happens during this process is that we see God as an outside interferer, someone who is always trying to spoil our fun and smash our toys (our idols). The things that were innocent when subordinated to God become temptations and tugs of war between God and me when I put them in God’s place.
But it is hard to discern this when clouded by lust or greed or resentment or envy or sloth or any of the Seven Deadly Sins. We must always hold the line firm on the first battlefield, which is the battlefield of the mind. We must always think of first things first. Then second things will fall into place. We will see the temptation to idolize those second things for what it is: sheer folly. Even if we succumb to temptation and sin, let us not see it as anything but folly. Let us not rationalize and becloud our own minds to make the guilt go away. Guilt is like pain: a necessary built-in warning device to head us away from the harmful thing that triggers it. Of course, both guilt and pain sensors can become either oversensitive or under sensitive. But they are there for a natural and necessary purpose.
So we must not rationalize. We must reason rightly. We must see things in their proper and real perspective if we are to live well. But the key to this seeing, in turn is loving things rightly. If we over-love things, we tend to over-value them in our minds in order to rationalize our over-valuing of them in our lives. If we under-love God and people, we tend to undervalue them in our minds to rationalize undervaluing them in our lives. …Thus loving and seeing depend on each other. If I do not love properly, it clouds my vision. And if my vision in clouded, I will not love aright.
This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. Say I want to take revenge on someone. God forbids this. Therefore I see God as a bother. But if I first loved God, I would then see that revenge was the bother. When I am in the grip of lust, God appears as a puritanical interferer. But when I am in the grip of God’s love, lust appears as it truly is: a pale perversion of true love and joy.
It starts in the will. If your will is right, if your will is set on “the one thing needful,” if your will is determined to obey the first and greatest commandment, then you will be able to understand, to discern, and to see. …
If, on the other hand, you do not love Him, then no matter how clever you are, you are bound to misunderstand Him and His commands as threatening to what you love.”

Peter Kreeft in The God Who Loves You (from the chapter “God’s Love in Practical Theology”)

God Loves You-Is that Important?

“God loves you”: How revolutionary and how life-changing is that truth to the task of coming to love and accept ourselves!

Self-esteem is necessary for all psychological health, and there is no absolutely sure basis for self-esteem other than the assurance of God’s love for me.

— — — — — —

Faith and love are the two things Christ most frequently calls for in the Gospels. How are they related?

In two ways. The most familiar one is that faith leads to love. Love is the practice of the faith. But the other way is also valid. Love can lead to faith.
I think most converts come to the faith in this second way, through the love of God…or of something. Father Zossima, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, teaches a “woman of little faith” how she can regain her lost faith through this path. When she was a child she believe unthinkingly. She cannot go back to that. But in her adult life she learned all the alternative plausible explanations of the physical sciences, which seemed to make faith unnecessary and intellectually disreputable. If science can explain everything, is not the faith a mere myth? How can I know that when I come to die instead of meeting God there won’t just be “just the burdocks on my grave?”

Father Zossima answers, “There is no proving it. But you can be convinced of it.” How?

»Through the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. Insofar as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain. «
Love has eyes and once they are opened we will see our neighbor’s soul as a thing…that could not be replaced, not just in our feelings but in objective reality; that is, in God’s consciousness.
Love perceives the unique and incalculable value of each of the Father’s children. We see clearly that if there is no God, these souls have no Father, these images, no model, these sparks no originating fire, these sunbeams no sun. Thus love perceives both God and immortal souls.

[However] The whole argument depends on an insight, an understanding, which you have only when you love. That love must be agape. It cannot be the passive love of feelings but the active love of agape. It cannot be the “love in dreams” that is like a pillow but the “love in action” that is like God…

Peter Kreeft,
The God Who Loves You: ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,’
2004, Ignatius Press, San Francisco

Hope and Help in Darkness

"When mystery hides Thee from the sight of faith and hope: when pain turns even love to dust: when life is bitter to the taste and our song of joy dies down to silence, then Father, do for us that which is past our power to do for ourselves.
Break through our darkness with Your light. Show us Thyself through Jesus suffering on the tree, rising from the grave, and reigning from the throne, all with power and love for us unchanging.
So shall our fear be gone and our feet set on a radiant path."

Alistair MacLean in Hebridean Altars
(See also, "Just because I am happy doesn't mean I don't have problems..." posted on 26 November 2011, as it relates to help not residing in a 'binary' solution)

The Irrepressible Effect of Being Alive to the Kingdom of God

Too often in my well-intentioned desire for Christian formation, I am simply seeking to find a balance between extremes: more like a “middle ground.” Unfortunately, "middle ground" is that imaginary place between “spiritual” and “carnal” living. And, as such, as a friend once said, “That middle ground is that place I wave to as I swing by on my way from one end of the pendulum to the opposite end.”
The truth is, Christian formation is Christ-formed-in-me, in the here and now. Most importantly, and most often and easily forgotten, it is God's desire to have me grow is greater and more urgent than my desire is.

Michael J. Wilkins talks about the extremes we often find ourselves in as we strive to have a “good” Christian life:
“For example:
- the contemplative who forgets the needs of the world
- the moralist who focuses on sin and neglects compassion
- the charismatic who seeks the gifts and neglects the Giver
- the social activist who forgets to listen to God
- the Bible-study enthusiast who feels no need for the Holy Spirit
- the ascetic who disallows the joy of life in Christ
- the community participant who loses his/her individual identity
- the Christian leader who forgets that she/he is still simply one of the flock…”

He adds: “ ‘Spirituality,’ then, is the overall goal of becoming like Jesus. ‘Spiritual formation’ points to the process of training, shaping, and being shaped in every area of our lives by the Spirit into the image of Christ.”
(Michael J. Wilkins, from: In His Image: Reflecting Christ in Everyday Life, NavPress, 1997.)

Dallas Willard clarifies,

“Spirituality in human beings is not an extra or ‘superior’ mode of existence. It’s not a hidden stream of separate reality, a separate life running parallel to our bodily existence. It does not consist of special ‘inward’ acts even though it has an inner aspect.

It is, rather, a relationship of our embodied selves to God that has the natural and irrepressible effect of making us alive to the Kingdom of God – here and now in the material world.”

(Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 31.)

Unpurchasable - the Potency of the Fruit of the Spirit

“Lord, You love us to stand in Your sight upright

and with such a gentleness in us that

some other will yearn to win its power.”

From Hebridean Altars: The Spirit of an Island Race by Alistair Maclean , 1937.

A Prayer for Deliverance

“Deliver me from self-trustfulness.

In the frequent days in which I must do battle with my self for foe,

arm me with a constant trust in Thee.”

→ From Hebridean Altars: The Spirit of an Island Race by Alistair Maclean , 1937.

Life, Simplified.

“Three things that please God most are true faith in God with a pure heart, a simple life with a grateful spirit, and generosity inspired by charity.”

  • Attributed to Ita. (Also called: Saint Ita, Saint Ida or Saint Ides, c. 475 - 570, a Celtic Christian).

Just Yours

Bonhoeffer's poem, Who Am I?, was written in prison in June of 1944, though I have posted it elsewhere, some things are always good to read again. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was also a participant in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, a founding member of the Confessing Church. His involvement in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler resulted in his arrest in April 1943 and his subsequent execution by hanging in April 1945, shortly before the war's end.

Who am I?

They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others?
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God,
I am Thine!

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Do You Want the Bad News, the Good News, or Both?

What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love Him too, but that if we let Him, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts Himself.
What is both Good and New about the Good News is that mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.

Thus the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday-School picnic. On the contrary. Child-birth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery.

  • Frederick Buechner

Clear-eyed Love

“This is one of the miracles of love: It gives a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.”

  • C. S. Lewis

Looking for love? Looking for truth?

God is a full-service God. Christianity (according to GK Chesterton) satisfies fundamental human longings by doing what no other religion has ever done:

"It met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story."

  • Chesterton in Everlasting Man

How Do You Cope? (Counselors of Comedy)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."

(Shakespeare, from As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, beginning line 139)
Here I am veering a bit from my standard fare (theology/philosophy) to take up the topic of how people cope. If I were to create an icon representing the totality of our human existence, it likely would resemble the universal symbols for theatre in which the Greek theatre masks show a smiling/laughing face (representing Thalia, the god of comedy) and a sad face (representing Melpomene, the god of tragedy).

This dramatic analogy tells us that our existence, much like a drama, is laced with successes, failures, laughter, pain, tears, mystery and agony-now, add to the drama "real life" factors such as perseverance, boredom, monotony, repetitive annoyances. And the question, how do the “actors” in this temporal "drama" grapple with the frustrating thought that satisfactory “resolutions” may not come? Indeed, we find for some unexplained reason we are forced to live with unresolved conflict, great inequities, with constant pain, or deep heartache. The question we are left with (barring the superficial, temporary deadening effects of drugs and alcohol), how do people cope? I think we grapple with the continual grind and the sometimes near-crushing defeats through two primary means: counselors (whether therapeutic or spiritual, sometimes both) and with laughter.

For a variety of circumstantial reasons, I have never been to an official “counselor” or nor do I seek out comedians. However, I have had and still have my share of both counselors and comedians though I do not pay money to see either. Most of my counselors were relatives, extremely close friends of the family and spiritual advisers. I have met comedians everywhere, and have resident comedians in my very large extended family and in my smaller but close circle of friends.

Clearly, it's not necessary to state the differences between counselors and comedians, I think though, the similarities are less obvious. Let's look at the outcome of visiting both a good counselor and a good comedian because it is identical. When you feel the "itch" returning, your mind turns to that person as the one who can "scratch" it satisfactorily.
So, what it is about a counselor that makes me wish to return? There are several things.

Obviously, she’s a person-and though this seems too trite to mention, the physical presence of another caring human brings something indefinable into the picture. Indefinable because there is something about the presence of a human that cannot be replicated in any other manner. Secondly, she is there for me. Her entire existence at that moment is for me-and none of it is for her. She also tries to put herself in my shoes to understand my world through my eyes. And, without judgment, she speaks both comforting and encouraging words. When we separate, we leave with a handshake or hug, or a check, and a promise to see each other again.

How is this similar to a comedian?

The comedian is physically there, and he is there for me. Only a failed comedian speaks on topics which interest himself alone. Good comedians know to make me laugh, he needs to see my situations through my eyes. So, he's forced to project himself, and he places himself in my world, imagining himself to be me. In this way, he is there for me. Yes, though he is gratified by a smile and a chuckle, much as the counselor is gratified by tears or a resolution, still, his emotions remain outside of my concern. In a way, he serves me, I do not serve him. The comedian speaks into my situation and draws a perspective that I had not seen before. In some way, like the counselor, without judgment, his words break that awful load of concern or tension. And the chuckle, guffaw, or laugh he eventually elicits helps me recall that the sun continually shines on the backside of the clouds. When we depart, I know we'll see each other again, for he needs to make me laugh as much as I need to laugh.

If you think of your life as making a trail in an enormous field of mature corn. You feel lost and helpless, all you can do is go forward. There are other people also making their way through this field, sometimes you run in to them. When you run in to a counselor, he will ask you which turns you took, you won't ask him. All types of hand-wringing about your wrong turns will pour out of your lips. A good counselor lets you talk, and when you're ready, comforts you, and perhaps, gives you some advice on the next few turns (which he has already taken). If he’s not taken those turns, he’ll at least help you think them through.

When you meet the comedian in the cornfield, he already has in mind those wrong turns you took, you do not need to open your mouth-he does it for you. So while he's voicing your internal frustrations, he's able to make light of the wrong turns: revealing to you, possibly the ludicrous decisions you made (or are about to make). As you are laughing, you realize you laugh out of surprise for the insights into your life-but mostly for the perspective he brings. Though he's not aloof, he's bringing fresh eyes and a new perspective on your turns. To say the obvious in a subtle way is somehow comforting: we're all lost in this cornfield, we're all making wrong turns-and no one gets out alive.

In a way, only God “hovers above” the cornfield and can see the entire layout, the entrances, exits and pitfalls. The counselor is there to provide comfort for the wrong turns you have taken, while the comedian provides relief, reassuring you that though this is your first time through the cornfield, everyone makes the mistakes of the same sort.

There is some sort of comfort in knowing that you are not the only person in the history of mankind who has walked through a fancy restaurant with toilet paper clinging to the bottom of his best shoes.

The question, then is not: is the counselor/mentor or the comedian necessary, but when are they needed? God has put people in our life who cause us pain and pleasure. But, He's also given us people who are gifted in providing us with soul care, a listening ear and a caring heart. Sometimes they come in the form of counselors, but sometimes they are comedians.

Men have been wise in different modes, but they have always laughed the same way.
(Samuel Johnson)

  • Charity Johnson

Daily "Stay-cations"

There is no repose for the mind except in the absolute;

for feeling, except in the infinite;

for the soul, except in the divine.

  • Henri Frédéric Amiel, Journal

"Did You Hear The One About A..."

Of the many topics which can be addressed in a blog relating to religion and specifically, Christianity, one of the most important topics is that of creativity. 

The ability to create through word, music, the fine arts, dance, or any of the variety of abilities God has endowed humankind with is one of the greatest gifts He has blessed us with. Creativity is at work in businesses, massages our fatigues, keeps our spirits buoyed, inspires the listless, energizes the tired, brings novelty to the tedious chores, and spreads wealth like no devised spreadsheet could. God, illustrating the point before man was ever created, did so by how He first organized the human: nothing is more creative or beautiful than the human being. The animals and all of the rest of the natural world, visible to the eye, is merely a punctuation mark when compared to the beauty of man and woman. 

He went the next step, not content to have all these powers resting in Himself. He spread the wealth and gave humans the power of creation-not restricting it to procreation or tending gardens or simply creating foods which taste good. He gave us creative powers that add flourishes to our lives: through the unlimited creativity of simple language and multi-faceted categories of the arts as well as the entertainment of human interaction. 

But one of the most wonderful gifts He gave us was the ability to laugh and to make others laugh. Paul Johnson, in his book “Creators: From Chaucer to Walt Disney,” addresses the blessing of having the ability to make others laugh-and what a gift it is from the God of Creation. “Some forms of creativity, no less important are immaterial as well as transient. One of the most important is to make people laugh. We live in a vale of tears, which begins with the crying of a babe and does not become any less doleful as we age. Humour, which lifts our spirits for a spell, is one of the most valuable of human solaces, and the gift of inciting it rare and inestimable. Whoever makes a new joke, which circulates, translates, globalizes itself and lives on through generations, perhaps millennia, is a creative genius, and a benefactor of humankind almost without compare. But the name of the man or woman remains unknown. I say “or woman” because women, whose lives are harder, need jokes more than men and make them more often. .. 

…I once found myself sitting near [an old comic named Frankie Howerd] and said… ‘You comics, who create laughter from what nature has given you, are among the most valuable people on earth. Statesmen may come, and generals may go, and both exercise enormous power. But the true benefactors of the human race are people like you, who enable us to drown our inevitable sorrows in laughter.’ ”

I have a strong sense from the Scriptures that God laughs a lot, not to mention the circumstantial evidence in my own life-it seems to me He’s certainly played a bunch of fun tricks thus far. Judging from the gospels, Jesus had such a sharp wit, that his serious disciples continually misunderstood his comments. 

There is a time to laugh.

  • Charity Johnson

The Hypothetical Real

CS Lewis discussing the possibility of faith in a Creator God. and the mystery of man's desires:

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

The Germination of an Act


A deed knocks first at thought,
And then it knocks at will.
That is the manufacturing spot,
And will at home and well.

It then goes out an act,
- Or is entombed so still
That only to the ear of God
Its doom is audible.

  • Emily Dickinson (1830–86), Poem LXVII, from Poems, in Part One: Life

God is Not Reserved for the Poor

The Pulley

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
"Let us," said he, "pour on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span."

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow'd, then wisdom, honour, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

"For if I should," said he,
"Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

"Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast."

  • George Herbert (1593-1633)

28 October 2009

It Really is About Perspective

What Ecclesiastes Told Me Today (parts of chapters 4, 5 and 6)

God has given men: “a sense of the past and future, but no comprehension of God’s work from the beginning to end." This should tell us that we live in a state of unawareness. Our comprehension of today, yesterday and tomorrow in not only limited, but it also distorted. We view time through the lenses of our thought-life and that means we focus on what is important to me now. Whether it has any real importance becomes a moot question when we pour our energy into our understanding what is valuable from the eternal perspective.
Ecclesiastes states it quite simply-God wishes us to “be happy and live the best life while you’re still alive.” That seems to easy, doesn’t it? It reiterates this several times: we need to eat and drink-and enjoy the rest that comes after work: “this is a gift from God.”
Ecclesiastes reminds me of who God is-He is not to be trifled with. As Lord and Creator, Eternal Judge, He is not just my pal. Ready for a good joke, a quick promise, just as quickly broken, or a sincere and well-intentioned “recommitment” that is superficial. He’d rather I take the time to consider Him well than to make bold statements about my spirituality, to ponder Him than to take my theological stand. In short, He’s not easily impressed.
Ecclesiastes tells me that what exists in the course of normal life has always existed: the same struggles, the same joys, the same defeats, the same victories, and satisfactions. Nothing is truly new. For example, where justice should be, we’ll find wickedness; and where righteousness should be, there is wickedness, too. People have been oppressed forever-and comforters are few. It reminds me that everyone is under someone’s authority-and not to be shocked at oppression when I see it.
For all our intelligence and superiority as humans, we all die, like wild animals do. Not only do not know what tomorrow will bring, but we do not know when we will die.
Further, it tells me that the intelligentsia-those superior humans who are so gifted and talented they are smart in everything-have no true advantage. No matter how much they learn, that for all their advantages, they’re giving nothing to those after them. They are here on earth for a short time and then they are gone.
The kind of work that has striving and over-achievement written all over it comes from rivalry between men. That kind of labor is unsatisfying. Indeed, it’s as good as chasing the wind-as elusive. It states that the man who labors to achieve yet lacks friends, brothers or sons never actually attains fulfillment. He has wealth and loneliness. It states what he does have simply:“emptiness.”
It says that the man who loves wealth can never get enough of It. And, not only that, but if he’s in love with it, he actually gets no pleasure from it. Wealth is attracts all sorts of people, seeking to siphon off that wealth. The surprising baggage of wealth is a restless sleep. Thinking they’re stockpiling wealth for their family and grandchildren, they rarely consider how they will have wasted their life the day that their luck runs out, the week when the unthinkable actually happens and come to nothing. What will they have spent their life on when they wake up to find they’ve spent their life for nothing? All that energy and time, and time and work, none of which can be regained. The pity is that is the loss is not the wealth, but the time, lost forever. Wealth can be regained, but time can never be returned to you. All his energies and life spent on gaining money which will be worthless anyway when he dies. It reminds me that working for wealth is like a dirty rag:because it is dirty, is a breeding ground for infestation. Similarly, wealth, for all its seeming innocent gilding, is infested. It is infested with problems: decisions, defending, guarding and scheming, to name a few. It tells me that joining with these problems and clustering together come other things: gnawing anxiety, stresses, sometimes sickness and, (because it’s all about competition) feelings of resentment.
God has given you one life—time and people are most precious to you. Whether you are rich or poor, of great rank or an unknown, it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things, for you are known to God. Take the good things in this world and enjoy what He has given you in the time He has given you: don’t stress over how long a life you will have-none of us really know how long we have anyway.
Rather, pay attention to what God has given you, and be thankful. In fact, if a man “has it all” – wealth, a large family, live a long life-but if he doesn’t actually enjoy his blessings, then his life was pointless.

We are not producers, we are not here to perform or turn up in a talent search of some sort, but rather, we are to see what we do have and be grateful for it.
Who said Ecclesiastes was depressing?

© Charity Johnson

Something's Gotta Give....

"The danger is not that religion has become the content of [television] but that [television] may become the content of religion....
[One example is that] on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. God comes out as second banana."

  • Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1984).

The Great Ummmmm....

Dear Nihilist Friends, (Materialists may look on, as well),
Please ponder these words:

If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant--
What then?

  • Stephen Crane from "The Black Riders and Other Lines"

The Import of God's Wisdom

On divine wisdom:

”Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,” cried Daniel the prophet, ”for wisdom and might are his: . . . he gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding: he reveals the deep and secret things: he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” ...When Christian theology declares that God is wise, it means vastly more than it says or can say, for it tries to make a comparatively weak word bear an incomprehensible plentitude of meaning that threatens to tear it apart and crush it under the sheer weight of the idea...The idea of God as infinitely wise is at the root of all truth. It is a datum of belief necessary to the soundness of all other beliefs about God. ... Wisdom sees everything in focus, each in proper relation to all, and is thus able to work toward predestined goals with flawless precision....Many [people] through the centuries have declared themselves unable to believe in the basic wisdom of a world wherein so much appears to be so wrong. Voltaire in his Candide introduces a determined optimist, whom he calls Dr. Pangloss, and into his mouth puts all the arguments for the ”best-of-all-possible-worlds” philosophy. ... the French cynic took keen delight in placing the old professor in situations that made his philosophy look ridiculous.
But the Christian view of life is altogether more realistic ... It is that this is not at the moment the best of all possible worlds, but one lying under the shadow of a huge calamity, the Fall of man. ... The operation of the gospel, the new birth, the coming of the divine Spirit into human nature, the ultimate overthrow of evil, and the final establishment of Christ’s righteous kingdom - all these have flowed and do flow out of God’s infinite fullness of wisdom. The sharpest eyes of the honest watcher...cannot discover a flaw in the ways of God in bringing all this to fruition...To believe actively that our Heavenly Father constantly spreads around us providential circumstances that work for our present good and our everlasting well-being brings to the soul a veritable benediction.
Most of us go through life praying a little, planning a little, jockeying for position, hoping but never being quite certain of anything, and always secretly afraid that we will miss the way. This is a tragic waste of truth and never gives rest to the heart....There is a better way.
Here is His promise: ”And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.”
God constantly encourages us to trust Him in the dark. ...It is heartening to learn how many of God’s mighty deeds were done in secret, away from the prying eyes of men or angles.
When God created the heavens and the earth, darkness was upon the face of the deep. When the Eternal Son became flesh, He was carried for a time in the darkness of the sweet virgin’s womb. When He died for the life of the world, it was in the darkness, seen by no one at the last. When He arose from the dead, it was ,’very early in the morning.” No one saw Him rise. It is as if God were saying, ”What I am is all that need matter to you, for there lie your hope and your peace. I will do what I will do, and it will all come to light at last, but how I do it is My secret. Trust Me, and be not afraid.”
With the goodness of God to desire our highest welfare, the wisdom of God to plan it, and the power of God to achieve it, what do we lack? Surely we are the most favored of all creatures.

  • A. W. Tozer, Knowledge Of The Holy, Chapter 11, "The Wisdom of God"

Life - Rehearsed, Cut Short and Rectified

What difference does it make to worship an infinite God?

"But God’s infinitude belongs to us and is made known to us for our everlasting profit. Yet, just what does it mean to us beyond the mere wonder of thinking about it? …Because God’s nature is infinite, everything that flows out of it is infinite also.
We poor human creatures are constantly being frustrated by limitations imposed upon us from without and within. The days of the years of our lives are few, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have attained some proficiency we are forced to lay our instruments down. There is simply not time enough to think, to become, to perform what the constitution of our natures indicates we are capable of.
How satisfying to turn from our limitations to a God who has none. Eternal years lie in His heart. For Him time does not pass, it remains; and those who are in Christ share with Him all the riches of limitless time and endless years.

God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which He must work. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves. …time is [no longer] a devouring beast; [but] before the sons of the new creation time crouches and purrs and licks their hands. The foe of the old human race becomes the friend of the new…But there is more. God’s gifts in nature have their limitations. They are finite because they have been created, but the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is as limitless as God. The Christian ...possesses God’s own life and shares His infinitude with Him. In God there is life enough for all and time enough to enjoy it. Whatever is possessed of natural life runs through its cycle from birth to death and ceases to be, but the life of God returns upon itself and ceases never. …this is life eternal: to know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent."

  • A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (from chapter 8, "God's Infinitude")

We Are All Hopeless Cases

We must read the Bible through the eyes of shipwrecked people for whom everything has gone overboard.

  • Karl Barth

Lethal Anger and Its Offspring

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine -

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

  • William Blake

Silence is Still Golden.

...work is not always required of a man.
There is such a thing as a sacred idleness—the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.

  • George MacDonald


Far too often we have a low view of the fullness of silence and stillness. I think perhaps this is because the concept of "fallow ground" is something that is foreign to many people. To devote any lengthy period of time not given over to problem-solving, information-gathering, working and producing, exchanging ideas, gaining new information and skills seems like a waste. And yet, if one takes time to be silent, to use the quiet time to listen and ponder what one has already taken in and absorbed, it can actually produce an abundant yield of new understanding. One might even have some highly innovative ideas or synthesize previously disparate concepts. We often learn most when we try least.

Down? Depressed? Lonely? Unloved?

God does love you...you know.

"…“God is love” … an essential attribute of God.

We do not know, and we may never know, what love is, but we can know how it manifests itself…[For example,] we see it showing itself as good will. Love wills the good of all and never wills arm or evil to any. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.”
Fear is the painful emotion that arises at the thought that we may be harmed or made to suffer....The world is full of enemies and as long as we are subject to the possibility of harm from these enemies, fear is inevitable. The effort to conquer fear without removing the causes altogether futile. As long as we look for hope in the law of averages, as long as we must trust for survival to our ability to outthink or outmaneuver the enemy, we have every good reason to be afraid. And fear has torment. …to know that love is of God and to enter into the secret place leaning on [Him]-this and only this can cast our fear. God is love and God is sovereign. His love disposes Him to desire our everlasting welfare and His sovereignty enables Him to secure it…
Love is also an emotional identification. It considers nothing its own but gives all freely to the object of its affection…It is a strange and beautiful eccentricity of the free God that He has allowed His heart to be emotionally identified with men. Self-sufficient as He is, He wants our love and will not be satisfied until He gets it. Free as He is, He has let His heart be bound to forever.
..The Lord takes particular pleasure in His [people]. .. Earth is the place where the pleasures of love are mixed with pain, for sin is here, and hate and ill will. In such a world as ours love must sometimes suffer… [Yet] the causes of sorrow will finally be abolished...and the new race will enjoy forever a world of selfless, perfect love.

It is the nature of love that it cannot lie quiescent. It is active, creative and benign. …So it must be where love is, it must ever give to its own, whatever the cost.
The love of God is one of the great realities of the universe, a pillar upon which the hope of the world rests. But it is a personal, intimate thing, too. God does not love populations, He loves people. He loves not masses, but men and women. He loves us all with a mighty love that has no beginning and can have no end.

In Christian experience there is a highly satisfying love content that distinguishes it from all other religions and elevates it to heights far beyond even the purest and noblest philosophy. This love God is [not even]…a thing; it is God Himself…

…Christian joy is the heart’s harmonious response to the Lord’s song of love.”

  • A. W. Tozer – The Knowledge of the Holy

The Ugly Truth about The Good and The Bad

Unscrupulous people become dull companions, while people of goodness and grace grow to be the best companions.

Evil stimulates like electricity-which, for all its innerving effects-is, in the end, boringly routine. True goodness is breath-taking and variegated in its beauty, having nooks and crannies to last a lifetime of fascinating exploration.

So the Eternal Creator God holds a continual fascination for humankind.

Back And Forth

Referring to comprehending the Scriptures in their context,

Martin Luther said, "...we read the Bible forward, but..we understand it backwards."

In a parallel statement, regarding interpreting our life in light of its eternity,

Kierkegaard said: "Life ...(is) understood backwards; but... lived forward. "

This leads me to believe there is a lot I have yet to sort out!


How Important Is Prayer?

Part Third. Of Prayer.


(Martin Luther) On the value of praying The Lord's Prayer.

...it is most necessary first to exhort and incite people to prayer... (it) is our duty to pray because of God's commandment. (Some) think that it is all the same whether he pray or not...Why should I pray? Who knows whether God heeds or will hear my prayer? If I do not pray, some one else will. And (so) they fall into the habit of never praying, and frame a pretext (which is they say, they) reject false and hypocritical prayers.

But praying...is to call upon God in every need. Though ..the human heart by nature... always flees from God and imagines that He does not wish or desire our prayer. (But)...He will not cast us from Him nor chase us away...but rather draw us to Himself...

(What deters us from praying? Thoughts such) as: I am not holy or worthy enough; if I were...godly and holy...then I would pray. Yet...the same commandment to pray which applied to...the saints applies also to me… (And) ...(though a saint) is holier in his person, (still)....God does not regard prayer on account of the (person praying), but....His word and obedience (to it). Besides, I have just as great a need of it as those great saints--even a greater one than they. (God) will not (allow) our prayers to be in vain or lost. For if He did not intend to answer your prayer, He would not bid you pray....

In the second place, we should be the more incited to pray because God has also added a promise...as He says Ps. 50:15 Call upon Me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee. And Christ...in... Matthew 7:7: Ask, and it shall be given you. For every one that asketh receiveth. Such promises...encourage and kindle our hearts to pray with pleasure and delight.

He (says)...that our prayer is heartily pleasing to Him, (and) that it shall assuredly be heard and granted, in order that we may not despise it or think lightly of it, and pray at a venture. This you can hold up to Him and say: Here I come, dear Father, and pray, not of my own purpose nor upon my own worthiness, but at Your commandment and promise, which cannot fail or deceive me.

...where there is to be a true prayer there must be earnestness. Men must feel their distress, and such distress as presses them and compels them to call and cry out then prayer will be made spontaneously. God also requires that you...plead necessities and wants, not because He does not know them, but that you may kindle your heart to stronger and greater desires, and make wide and open your cloak to receive much. Whenever a godly Christian prays: Dear Father let Thy will be done, God speaks from on high and says: Yes, dear child, it shall be so, in spite of the devil and all the world.

Let this be...an exhortation, that men may learn... to esteem prayer as something great and precious, and to make a proper distinction between babbling and praying for something.

  • Martin Luther on Prayer

A Place to Settle Down, Part 1 of 2


There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all…Again, you have stood before some landscape which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw – but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported. Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of—something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the worship or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantilising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

(Continued in part 2)
  • C. S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain (excerpted from the chapter: “Heaven”)

A Place to Settle Down - Part 2


This signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that (they) are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why, He makes each soul unique. If He had not use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, by you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. ….God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

  • C. S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain (excerpted from the chapter: “Heaven”)

Human Frailty [partial]

Weak and irresolute is man;
The purpose of to-day,
Some foe to his upright intent
Finds out his weaker part;
Virtue engages his assent,
But Pleasure wins his heart.
A stranger to superior strength,
Man vainly trusts his own.

But oars alone can ne’er prevail
To reach the distant coast;
The Breath of Heaven must swell the sail,
Or all the toil is lost.

  • William Cowper

Understanding Nothing, Yet Intuiting Everything...

C.S. Lewis recalls an objection to the Christian God:

"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?

A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

  • C. S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

Finite vs. Infinite

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will. …

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

  • William Cowper,
"Light Shining Out of Darkness " (partial)- from The Olney Hymns


“No one can be made happy unless he rise above himself, not by an ascent of the body, but of the heart. But we cannot rise above ourselves unless a higher power lift us up. No matter how much our interior progress is ordered, nothing will come of it unless accompanied by divine aid…Prayer is the…mother and source of the ascent.”
  • John of the Cross

It's A Short Winter...


The night is damp and warm and still,
And full of summer-dreams;
The buds are bursting at their will,
And soft the half moon gleams.

My soul is cool, as bathed within
By dews that silent weep;
Like child that has confessed his sin,
And now will go to sleep.

A childhood new, Lord, thou dost set,
Each season for a sign;
Lest, old in this world, we forget
That we are young in thine.

A child, Lord, make me ever more;
Let years fresh sonship bring,
Till, out of age's winter sore,
I pass into thy spring.

  • George MacDonald, Section IV of "Songs of the Days and Nights" in The Disciple and Other Poems

26 October 2009

Benefits of Meditation and Objects of Meditation

But, you may ask, is meditation really worth the time commitment?" “What benefits can I expect, since there are no tangible material gain in it?” Again, William Bridge has a response to that question:

"It is a help to knowledge, thereby your knowledge is raised.

Thereby your memory is strengthened;

♥ thereby your heart is warmed.

♥ Thereby you will be freed from sinful thoughts,

♥ thereby your heart will be tuned to every duty.

♥ Thereby you will grow in grace.

♥ Thereby you will fill up all the chinks and crevices of your life,

♥ and know how to spend your spare time, and improve that for God.

♥ Thereby you will draw good out of evil.

♥ And thereby you will converse with God,

♥ have communion with God,

♥ and enjoy God.

I (ask)...is not here profit enough to sweeten the voyage of your thoughts in meditation?"

  • William Bridge (punctuation changed)

What are some things that the scriptures say is worthy of meditation? A few are:

1) God's Word

2) God's creation

3) God's providence

4) God's character

"Make the world go away..." or Why Mediate?

It has been said that you eventually become what you think about continually.
If, for example, you dwell on how to make more money, that eventually is the target of every waking (and sleeping) dream of your life.
Naturally, when you lose your money, then, you lose everything that makes you what you are-and so often, you lose those things which cannot buy money: health, peace of mind, happiness and friendships.
Likewise, if you think about what people's opinion of you is, your job, your appearance, your prestige, and so on.
The question we need to consider is what is worthy of my continual and deep consideration, if not myself? I would submit that navel-gazing is the fastest route to neurosis.
Mental health is most quickly achieved and held if one’s life focus is on God, the Father, who created you, and Who loves you eternally. But,you wonder, how do we “think” about Him properly?
The primary revealed source for that is the scriptures. This is a repulsive conclusion for some people who have been abused or mishandled by those who claim to believe the Bible. Yet where does the problem lie? Do we blame the Bible for others' abuse? Since emotions have been involved, this kind of thinking is not at all straight, but certainly understandable for anger and hurt repel them from the Bible. Yet they are confused because they are mixing up the people who purported to know the information in the scripture with the actual scriptures. There is nothing wrong with the scriptures-only with the “reporter” in this case.
It is similar to me adding figures incorrectly and passing the incorrect sum along to you: my inaccuracy handling the operation does not invalidate the entire mathematical operation of addition.

God remains, no matter what, the only one worthy of our focus and, specifically, the one to desire to be pleasing to above all others.

Once our resistance to the scriptures is overcome and we understand what we are reading, we have another hurdle to get over: we wish to hold on to the beautiful truths, those which reveal God's compassion and faithfulness. We need them to penetrate through the noise within our heads. The answer is that we need to meditate on God. A certain writer responded to this (language is a bit antiquated):

"(but)...I have no time for this work (of meditating on the scriptures). (If) you would meditate on God and the things of God, then take heed that your heart, and your hands be not too full of the world and the employment thereof.
Friends, there is an art, a divine skill of meditation which none can teach but God alone.
(If)...you would have it, then go and beg of God (for) these things."

  • William Bridge