31 January 2012

Real Reality – Doubts, Posers and Agnosticism

“…a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest.
(Doubts) are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet but have to be understood…Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed.”
– George MacDonald
There are religious believers who remind me of some a kind of “poser” for an advanced rock climbers but who are “top-roping” — trusting the ropes and their pals to make sure he’s hauled to the top in case of a slip up.  He’s cockily assured he’s always tethered, for him, checking his toe holds are of little importance.  In contrast, true “advanced” climbers are the ones who check, but climb, and climb higher.  And sometimes choose the wrong toe holds: There will be periods of hardship and crushing difficulties and sometimes the greatest saint will doubt.  After all, he is a human.  Ironically, doubt wears the disguise of piety in times of great personal success.
There is a great group below–the agnostics –who stand on the ground looking up at the climb. Perhaps they’d been tethered and top-roped for a while, but they’re just earthbound now. These doubters are the “Thomases.” (John 20:24-29) One would wish them all to be honest men, who ask only to put their fingers into His scarred hands, and thrust their hands into His sides.  Sometimes they seek a faith if only to quiet the gong of small gods and the clang of the corruptible, unresurrected creation.  Granted, a “Thomas” hasn’t yet figured it out and maybe he’s still seeking.  As long as he has the will (or is it the courage?) to admit that he has been unable to find anything durable but is still actively searching, he deserves and will receive an answer.  “Cookie-cutter” statements and pat answers don’t solve the doubter’s dilemma.  They are better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.  Whether an earthbound Thomas or an advanced climber, we all have our own tree to cut down:
In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

At four o’clock I shoulder ax,
And in the afterglow
I link a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.
I see for Nature no defeat
In one tree’s overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow

In Winter In The Woods – by Robert Frost

30 January 2012

Attitude Sickness

It’s been said that ideas have consequences—I would add that attitudes do, too. One of my great uncles was a Communist as a young man. I suppose, the theory sounded paper-good. Family lore has it that when he was sent overseas, he changed his mind about the Communism’s positive contribution–and changed his attitude towards it.
  Little is more unsettling than a disengaged, disinterested atheist: the ones with a “Whatever…” attitude. It’s unsettling because it’s a dead attitude: there’s no freshness, no curiosity, no vibrancy.  A few days ago, my husband was leaving the office and met someone for the first time.  This employee was departing at the same time to go on a jog. It turned out that he was the final person to talk to the employee alive– she was struck and killed in the evening traffic.  I do not know the spiritual state of the employee.  I only know the death was unexpected and sudden—but that is our continual status as humans.
   A person’s beliefs about the world is a conglomeration of who he is and who he has become-never an accurate reflection of the world. If his belief about God is that He is not there and does not care, I have to wonder who taught him this. God will never will trifle with your affections—that is, He takes your feelings seriously—probably more seriously than you do. And He, of all, is faithful to you.
   Some atheists have told me, “I can’t pray so I don’t.” and “I don’t know what to believe about God.” If you want love, then you must pray. All you need is to be willing to try—God coaches you through it all. And you can’t pray wrongly— not when you pray with your entire heart.
“That prayer has great power which a person makes with all his might…
It draws down the great God into the little heart;
it drives the hungry soul up into the fullness of God;
it brings together two lovers, God and the soul, in a wondrous place
where they speak much of love.” (Mechthild of Magheburg)
  As for “what to believe about God” problem, I suggest you ask yourself what Christ says about Him and what is important to Him—and look in the Bible for that information. God will provide the rest—but don’t expect a PhD in God-o-logy, for spiritual growth can (and should) go on your entire life—however long that is. The only hard question is: are you willing?

24 January 2012

Christian Women Are Aborting Their Daughter's...

Many Roman Catholic and Christian woman are guilty of abortion. That’s right. Abortion.
They have been aborting some of the brightest intellects and some of the greatest artists, writers, musicians, some of the finest teachers, preachers and pray-ers.  On the other hand, Christian women are excellent consumers.  I have found the best handwringers in Christian circles.  We're great accusers, get high scores in "circling the wagons" when necessary.  But I have been sickened by what I call the princess-syndrome: this is where we guard young girls from exercising their minds in difficult situations (do we expect their prince to spring to their side?).  Still, there are times we encourage their intellectual growth--but only to a point--once they're grown they seem to have no more need for their brain: just exchange recipes, sweet deals, and travel/mission experiences. Singing and playing piano or organ is a thumbs-up.

Serious theology, preaching, and serious talk is frowned upon; if you are serious about prayer and "deeper work within" -- well, those are akin to "extra credit" and not a norm for every able-minded Christian. The most common excuse is our lack of time--then spend 2 hours watching a feel-good movie that makes us feel-good about our own mediocrity. We do have the time-we're just copping out. Hard words? Perhaps. True words? Yes, I am certain that the only thing we are to be baby-like in is in regard to evil (doing evil).
I will admit I was in denial about the Barbie-like attitude towards life Christian women were encouraged to live in. But once the fog cleared from my brain, I stopped attending women's conferences and buying women's books at Christian book stores. Dumbing down a book or sermon might have broad appeal, but is it necessary? Doubly insulting is that both the writing and the content are dumbed down.
Some of you don't believe me: well, here is a sample of something for “Christian women:”
"One of my favorite foods on earth is fresh, hot, homemade apple muffins. I make them occasionally when I have time and enjoy one with a fresh brewed pot of coffee. I take the muffin, the coffee, and the newspaper, and sit on my patio (sometimes with the neighborhood cats) relishing the beginning of a new day. All my senses are pleased. Complete satisfaction. " - Luci Swindoll,
I Married Adventure
If this were merely the beginning of a great book I wouldn't include it, but it's not. I would never recommend it for a Christian--or nonChristian, it's like a chat with a nice, but slightly shallow friend (I am sure Ms Swindoll's a lovely person). But my point remains: we do harm to ourselves by publishing, buying and recommending books. What's the harm? Christian books of this type don't sharpen my mind, they flatten it. I still have a spirit of inquiry, I desire discussion and exchange with the author. Our interests ought to be piqued not squelched nor distracted.
How does this connect with practical theology? Many Christian women go through the motions of missions, social justice, and fellowship. But, is it missing something: that is, do we do it with
understanding? Have we read, reflected, and grasped our piece in the global setting, historical landscape of time, and the Spiritual Body of Christ?
Or, do we roll along, struggling, to be nice, hoping to please our neighbor most of the time now, and God in the end when our "good works" balance out our bad? If so, we don't understand what it is to be a Christian.
I believe in, but also like the weightiness and succinctness of The Apostles Creed--and it ends this way: "I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. In our life the Holy Spirit at work now, and our life is in His Kingdom here and now; the church is universal--and let me skip to the point--what do you think you will be doing in your resurrected body? Eating fresh, hot muffins on your front porch?
Our Christian calling is for progress: for ourselves, each other and the world: Christ's redemption in this world does not end in me: no, it begins. And each thing I do (or chose not to do), hidden or open, in private or in public, here and now, counts in eternity. Jesus said, "Go make disciples...," not mere converts.  Be a disciple, let's do more--and demand more--from our Christian authors, screen writers and artists of all sorts.
On The Image of God:
"Those things which are said of God and other things are predicated neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically... Accordingly, since we arrive at the knowledge of God from other things, the reality of the names predicated of God and other things is first in God according to His mode, but the meaning of the name is in Him afterwards. Wherefore He is said to be named from His effects."
- Thomas Aquinas,
Summa contra Gentiles

19 January 2012

Poor, Ugly, Stupid People Might Be Happier Than You

Poor, Ugly, Stupid People Might Be Happier Than You

Some drums need to be beaten over and over: gratefulness or thankfulness is one of those.
Regret-driven, or envious people are never truly satisfied nor happy; but grateful people are. 
You’ve probably heard people say, “We were poor when I was a child but I was happy” as if it’s a paradox.
But it’s not a contradiction: One of the things we can remember to learn from children is that they take and give love (eagerly) where they find it—and material things mean little to them.  Shakespeare recognized the misery of ignoring your own “wealth” when comparing yourself to others in this sonnet. I have placed a paraphrase below it.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

       By William Shakespeare

Sonnet 29  (by William Shakespeare, paraphrased)
When left alone by both fortune and people’s favor
Then, Lonely Me gets depressed and cries—

And ask God, “Why not me?” or “Why!?”
as I look at myself, at my condition and at my luck.
I wish to be like those with a bright and certain future--
Or ravishing good looks, or with all those great friends.

I’m envious of other’s abilities, and jealous of their lifestyle.
Yet what I truly love in my life, I am most oblivious of.
When I’m in this spot, I hate myself.

But if by chance, I think of you, then my heart
is like a lark rising up at dawn’s daylight
from darkest earth, singing hymns at heaven’s gate;
For your sweet love, remembered such, wealth brings—
And then I wouldn’t change my life with kings.
(for another paraphrase you may view it at: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/29.html

12 January 2012

What To Do With Power in An Open Universe

"The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers." - GK Chesterton
Any number of beliefs on destiny, including materialism, are by nature centripetal in this respect: that they move towards a collapsing center. Buddhism, all will be extinguished; Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism, for all the gods, has a great destiny in the extinguishment of nirvana, a blowing out. Atheism and agnosticism is materialism dressed in fine words: the endpoint of these is the grave.
Christianity moves centrifugally; outwards, expanding and extending. It's not God's way to extinguish His good works: He will to bring them to blossom--eventually--in a great symphony of blooms.   At the center of Christianity is the Son of Man and the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is the Fixed Point for all. And though God is limitless, yet He became a Son, demonstrating that He can do two opposite things at once: He can give men power to love Him without forcing Him to love Him. This becomes our starting point (and the engine, if you will) of loving all good things He has created.
"But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." - John 1:12-13
It is only the strong who can give the power to the weaker. In this circumstance, that of being a Christian, God shifted the responsibility for power to us (He has that authority).   At this moment, this evening, night, this afternoon: though all-powerful and all-knowing, He stooped (figuratively) to give us the dignity of apparent causality in "real time." and He said, "No, it is your choice. If you wish to be my child, I want you to desire it." (Little do we realize that desire to love becomes our greatest human asset.)
I like to freely interpret the verse, "Those who received him, He rushed over and crushed them to Him in the embrace of a loving parent; not because of who they were, or what they had done for him, but because He had been longing for this moment."
And once you're His, the world, the universe starts to open up: you're imbued with a special sense for beauty, your sensitivities are heightened, your desire is finely tuned in to detect wonders, large and small. You begin to see the great plain of the world as waiting to be reworked--reworked to reflect His goodness, justice, mercy, and beauty.
"...whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God! It is plain to anyone with eyes to see that at the present time all created life groans in a sort of universal travail. And it is plain, too, that we who have a foretaste of the Spirit are in a state of painful tension, while we wait for that redemption of our bodies which will mean that at last we have realised our full sonship in him." (JB Phillips New Testament of Romans 8:18-25)

09 January 2012

Working For Change

I’ve been married for 35 years. When I was about 7 years into my marital life I read a helpful bit of advice which caused me to turn things around and to work more on myself. Dale Carnegie wrote that a woman wrote him “For years I have been wishing I had a new husband, then one day I realized perhaps he needed a new wife.”
When it comes to any kind of attitude change, it needs to happen in the will–and that is a hard place for most of us to go.
“Everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy Change is not optional: it is necessary for the preservation of ourselves, or loved ones, our descendents. We cannot fall asleep at the switch, for there are no guarantees in the history of mankind–except without vigilance and work, we’re certain to end up in a society which is uncivil, immoral, corrupt and chaotic. None of us can “opt out” of our roles. When we were born, we were born into being members of a society: there is no absentee life, we are continually making things better or worse.
“…in sociologically and psychologically oriented age (we) have all kinds of explanations for the moral problems of man. But according to the Bible, it is not moral declension that causes doctrinal declension; it is just the opposite.” – Francis Schaeffer

07 January 2012

An Alchemy Beyond A Recipe

Images, fragrances, flavors–they all have the power to attract or to repulse. The picture here is an original piece of stitched artwork done by a Catskill artist who was doing a theme on doors–I often imagine prayer as a kind of doorway. PR men used to wrangle with the difficulties of television because it could not be Smell-O-Vision: that is, they couldn’t bring the fragrances of meals into our homes.
An old friend of mine was a successful professional photographer in New York City. She told me a trade secret. She could not photograph real food and make it look tasty. To capture the savoriness of the real food, she had to employ props (fake food). I was surprised that anything as appetizing as a gourmet meal or garden-fresh produce had to be faked.  But the failure was not in the food, but transmission of its essence by camera.  After I learned this fact, one day I was sitting in the mental misty flats of wondering what was wrong with me for getting bored when people would talk about prayer.  I realized that I was trying to draw a straight line between praying and garbled discussions of prayer. In doing so, my mistake to link my boredom of the discussion of prayer to me praying and the natural result: guilt. I reclaimed my life by realizing prayer wasn’t boring–but discussing it was.
Since then, I carry no guilt about being bored in conversations or sermons on prayer: I have drawn a clear line between description and experience. (Instruction on prayer is necessary, but that’s a different topic, altogether.)  That the stellar effects of praying are not easily transmitted doesn’t spoil my joy of prayer. The effects, the fragrance-memories, can linger in the heart for decades as a kind of retro fixed point. I’d like to believe that God gives us personal memories of prayer to sustain and re-attract us.  I am sure one of God’s chief desires for me is to learn that He loves me in excess of my love for anyone or anything else. Paul says as much in his prayer for the Ephesians:
“to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge.” (Ephesians 3). Notice Paul doesn’t write about prayer, nor merely say, “You should love God.” He prays for them to comprehend God’s love, at least as much as (I am sure) he himself had experienced God's love.
Images can give us a more concrete understanding of what I am trying to say about prayer.  For this, I like how George Herbert’s poem captures a kind of slideshow in words about the effects of prayer. (Charity Johnson)
Prayer (1)
Prayer the Church’s banquet, angel’s age,
  God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
  The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
  Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
  The six days world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
  Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
  Heaven in ordinary, man well-drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
  Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
  The land of spices; something understood.
by George Herbert

05 January 2012

Learning How To Get Thrown

"EPIC FAIL!" "Loser!"
Passed over. Bounced. Tossed out on your ear.
It happens to all of us. Often it's a self-inflicted failure. What do you do then?
Quit? Pack up your toys and leave? Leave in a huff?
Leave in a taxi?
Beat yourself up?
Sometimes I am just not ready for some things, other times I have been unprepared, and then sometimes I just need to make a course adjustment.
More often though, I have to go back and do it again--and succeed. The only problem with that plan is that (for good reasons) I am adverse to failure, to hurt and to injury.
I have found that when I must surmount temptation, or when I am facing a mountain of a job, or a difficult task, it's best to come with a lightness in my soul. This short humorous poem by Henry Taylor sketches out our best attitude in these circumstances (a filly is a young female horse, my dear international readers).

Riding Lesson
I learned two things
from an early riding teacher.
He held a nervous filly
in one hand and gestured
with the other, saying "Listen.
Keep one leg on one side,
the other leg on the other side,
and your mind in the middle."

He turned and mounted.
She took two steps, then left
the ground, I thought for good.
But she came down hard, humped
her back, swallowed her neck,
and threw her rider as you'd
throw a rock. He rose, brushed
his pants and caught his breath,
and said, "See that's the way
to do it. When you see
they're gonna throw you, get off."

"Riding Lesson," by Henry Taylor from An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards (University of Utah Press)

04 January 2012

Bearing Grudges Will Break Your Back-What To Do When You're Hurt

It is human to wish ill on certain people and our sense of justice doesn't need prodding to produce a desire for vengence, these illustrate:

September 1, 1939
I and the public know
What all school children learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. [lines 19-22] - by W.H. Auden

"Docimedes has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and eyes in the temple where she appoints." - A Roman curse, Bath, England.

"The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged, only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish."  W.H. Auden, "The Prince's Dog" (p. 201)

It's normal, it's human, but, is vengeance the right way, the godly way, to respond to wrongdoing? "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" asks Shakespeare in "The Merchant of Venice"

Jesus Christ, when instructing His followers how to pray, told them to include,
"Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us." (Matthew 6:12, New Living Translation). Another time Christ was instructing his followers::
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Matthew 5:43-48 (English Standard Version)
Certainly, genuine Christian tradition through the centuries has taught and modeled Christ as in this message and life:
"Through...prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can ...overcome us, so long as we pray for them...We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves."- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, participant in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, a founding member of the Confessing Church. Imprisoned, and then executed on April 9, 1945 in Nazi Germany.

Maybe you're not Christian, and maybe you don't care. But maybe it's the only thing to do?
It is a wonderful paradox of God: when injured person comes to God praying for his enemy, suddenly finds himself in the throne room together with God and in a sense he has become the person of greater power.  The wrong-doer no longer has real power over the person he has wronged. Retaliation, taking vengeance, has no up side to it.  It perpetuates the harm to all people involved, and are always unintended and unforeseen consequences to taking vengeance.   I know what you're thinking: it's too much to ask.  I agree. Christ's charge to his followers to pray and to forgive more often than not does require supernatural power--but then, God is in the business of supplying supernatural power, especially in these cases. It will require of you the strength to be humble.  If you think about it, as the victim of wrongdoing, wouldn't you rather have God figure out the justice and future justice of entire mess than to live out the rest of your days in perpetual conflict, unrest and anger?   Praying for your enemies is a powerful, character-changing act.
Do you dare? - Charity Johnson