Friday, December 18, 2020

R. P. George: Central Tenet of Marriage

A central tenet of the traditional view of marriage is that the value (and point) of sex is the intrinsic good of marriage itself which is actualized in sexual acts which unite spouses biologically, and thus interpersonally. This does not mean that procreation and pleasure are not rightly sought in marital acts; it means merely that they they are rightly sought when they are integrated with the basic good and justifying point of marital sex, namely, the one-flesh union of marriage itself. (Robert P. George, Clash of Orthodoxies, pg. 82)

Sex is intrinsic to human persons, not an instrumental function. Therefore, the way we conduct ourselves sexually matters, and implies something about what we believe ourselves to be. Thus, if complementarity does not matter, then organs are purely subjective to the will. Therefore, gender is mutable, malleable; and there is no moderate realism whatsoever about masculinity and femininity. These most basic of human realities are now somehow subject to the human will and feelings. This can, I believe, be traced directly to loss of a sense of Creation. For Creation means intent and purpose and design and coherence. No creation means we can ultimately decide for ourselves since by some pure chance we have what we understand to be will and we further understand it to be autonomous and within such literally folly-ridden notions we lose all bearing completely because we make ourselves the beginning, end and all between. There can be no greater folly, no greater lostness. And its most stark demonstration is in the disintegration of sexual mores or norms.

George's definition of marriage: A one-flesh communion of persons consummated and actualized by acts which are reproductive in type and perfected, where all goes well, in the generation, education, and nurturing of children in a context -- the family -- which is uniquely suited to their well-being.

Alternate view as he sees it: Marriage is a mere convention which is malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or, indeed, groups, can choose to make whatever suits their desires, interests, subjective goals, etc.

He then suggests the self-evident truth that a given view will have identifiable consequences and, in view of those consequences a government cannot afford to be neutral (were that possible) in its laws.

"A sound law of marriage is not one that aspires to moral neutrality; it is one that is in line with moral truth."

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Note to Self

Pride likes to masquerade as independence, even resourcefulness. 

Be humble, ask for help, for information. Allow yourself to imagine you may not know the answer. At all. 

Allow the other person to help you. Maybe, just maybe, they know something you don't. Let them share your life by making it better, more rounded, happier, freer, because better informed and more connected.

Some lessons, through dint of repetition, finally sink in. The soul-tears are real, but happy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Ministry Remnants: The Work of the Holy Spirit in Daily Life

Years ago I sat through a conference titled something like "The Work and Scope of the Holy Spirit in Ministry." I remember even then thinking it was a grand endeavor and yet I loved the teacher and mentor who led it, Edsel Trouten, not least for his largeness of vision and passion for thinking big thoughts.

And so to title this "remnant" as I have is a bit grandiose, for books and lifetimes have been spent on the question. Thus I shall see once again if my penchant for saying too much can be redeemed, the "too much" shepherded into something helpful, worth your time.

I tried to craft a message working from Luke's account of Mary's visit from the angel, specifically the answer to Mary's question, "How can this thing be?" "The Holy Spirit shall come upon you," explained Gabriel, and then, after further detail, he summed it up with immortal affirmation: "For with God nothing shall be impossible."

Does this Encounter Teach us about the Holy Spirit in our own life?

The same Edsel Trouten mentioned above -- there is no other! -- once pointed out no Scripture has direct application because no situation is thoroughly identical to that which occurred at the time of the writing. So if we hold too strict a a rule for applying we would apply nothing, since our situation has no angel, no virgin, no child to come, no Elizabeth -- you get the picture.

But if we step back we see a person -- Mary; a word from God -- "With God nothing is impossible"; the intervention of God in a person's life -- "the Holy Spirit shall come upon you." Can these things apply? To you and me? Today? Well, let's not be subtle: OF COURSE!

But Who is this Holy Spirit?

He is God, co-equal with the Father and Son, eternal, to be worshipped, heeded and obeyed. He "convicts the world of sin", a gift to make aware of that which will undo us and in the end, damn us. Furthermore, he can be grieved. He is self-effacing -- does not promote Himself. And he, therefore, works behind the scenes, deep within, slow, steady, unobtrusive.

How Do we Receive the Holy Spirit?

This can be difficult because often great emphasis is put on a point-in-time, an encounter, a specific filling. This is well and good and has biblical -- to say nothing of logical -- basis. If we are "filled" or "indwelt"; if the spirit is to "come upon us" it will happen at a point-in-time. But I think we often neglect the equally important truth that his life in us is always ongoing. 

How do we receive the Holy Spirit and begin walking with his inner, quiet, patient teaching and transformation?

  • Repentance -- this is an essential, grace-enabled response to God. We turn from our own way and the door is opened for God to come in.
  • We ask. Jesus taught so simply in the Gospels: "If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him." Need the presence of God in your life? Ask. He will give.
  • Be still. A W Tozer says it well: "...cultivating heart stillness may be our most valuable activity because then we can hear God's gentle whisper." Or as Dallas Willard has it: "When we learn to be really quiet we begin to feel the breeze of heaven in our face."
So that's the remnant for now, with this summation. 

What is your impossible? Whatever it is, bring it to God. With Him nothing is impossible. But He works by means of the Holy Spirit. Are you repenting of any known sin, learning to be still and listen, asking, truly asking? You will find the God of the impossible coming in and slowly -- always slowly by our reckoning -- transforming your inner life so that, in time, the impossible will be a memory, and from your life will flow rivers of living water.

Of Learning and Lasting and Living

He who notices the falling sparrow, also notices me, and makes meaning of naught.

You can only do well what you spend time with, and then only if it connects with spirit, calling, native instinct, talent. Try to do everything that strikes your fancy and life becomes like the frayed end of a rope: too many pieces, all short, none much use. Frustrating, not satisfying.

I rather dislike this summation. Like all generalities it bears exception, though it seems true on the whole. But I thought of it as I read Mark Spragg's account of the ranch farrier shoeing a horse. What I know of horseshoes is not worth telling, and I quite literally don't know the first thing about putting one on a horse's foot. I could stubbornly learn, sure enough, but without coaching it would be a long ordeal.

Shot through all of this is the longing to do what matters, and will matter. And in this the mystery of time bears in. There is never time to see for yourself the outcome, good or ill, of all the seeds planted in your life. And the fruit we do see we either hopefully construe as good, perhaps more than justified; or we cast it as regrettable and worse, also no doubt more-so than common mercy would allow. And of course there is the endless terrain of what can seem meaningless, of no account either way.

And then we talk about it, as I do now, and no one, ever, anywhere, will read it. Or if they do, imagining it had interest to a distant relative who read for sheer affection or duty to heritage, it would be years or lifetimes after you are seen only on a tombstone, if at all.

This is not somber or morbid. It is plain life. Youth cannot handle it: nothing terrified me more as a young man than the possibility of my own death. Old age, on the other hand, had better handle it for it is the reality. And if there is nothing beyond, well, nothing can be done about it.

Yet, I believe, and I hope in Christ who said.... Well, you know. He dared to believe His Father, our Heavenly Father, was redeeming the world and would make all things new. And so He did, and is doing. And with joy I hope for that endless day, ever learning, slow upon slowness, the daily tasks of life: healing of the heart, renewed day by day, knowing the One who holds my life will see to it that “all the ways of goodness are not stopped.”

So I live another day, a gift from God, with this reminder: "I never know how thought or word: action, random though it seems, within God's vast compendium has weight and import." He who notices the falling sparrow, also notices me, and makes meaning of naught. This is Alleluia.

- - - - - - -

Monday, November 30, 2020

Ministry Remnants: Laying Eggs, aka, Preaching Poor Sermons

There once was a preacher, so the story goes, who, upon retirement learned his wife had a stash of $2,000 dollars laid aside in an egg carton, along with several eggs. 

"Where did this come from?" he asked, amazed. 

"Well, honey, every time you preached a sermon that was, as the expression goes, 'laying an egg', I put an egg in the carton." Seeing only 5 eggs the preacher was relieved. "But what of the two thousand dollars?" 

"Well," his wife replied, "Every time I had a dozen eggs I sold them and kept the cash." 

Every preacher knows the pain of having preached poorly. The reasons are many, for preachers are human to be sure. One seasoned preacher once told me, "If the congregation knows you love them it doesn't matter what you say in your sermon." I think this must surely be right and there seems to be a corollary truth: "The better you love your congregation, the more your preaching will have effect." 

Be that as it may, every preacher wants to do well, likely worries too much about it, and feels deeply pained when the message falls flat. So what to do? It is tempting to leave off, for no one needs platitudes and weary analysis. But daring to believe this could be helpful, if only to me, I will offer a few brief solutions to poor preaching.
  • First things first: if you have not prayed, forget it. Pray for your people, pray regularly and at length, pray for wisdom and insight, effectiveness, anointing, unction, humility, brevity. Read Bounds for motivation. It will work if you are breathing. But pray. 
  • Spend time with your people. Nothing helps you relate better to others than really knowing them. Nothing. This is a central natural means we must use to help our preaching. You need to know their perspectives, the things on their mind, their worries, ideas, concepts of God and the spiritual life. This will humble you, and will shut your mouth on half the pontificating to which you may be prone. There is no substitute for personal time with the folks who listen to you on Sunday morning.
  • Study. Of course. Widely, regularly, grounded in Scripture. Listening to other preachers must be part of this. Learn through trial and error what study methods work best, how best to shape the message and delivery. And there is no substitute for going over the sermon multiple times while standing in the pulpit. Or at least do it once before you preach it for the congregation.
  • Stay with the task -- few preachers get really good without years of practice. It is easy to want to give up for any number of reason. The struggle is real. But few things are more important than perseverance. God will help you. Quitting short-circuits that process, painful as it is.
I could go on with ideas perhaps, but that is enough. Discipline is required, as in any task. A preacher must submit to the disciplines of the calling if he would avoid laying the woeful egg. 

That's all for now. I want to be better, and this encourages me. I hope it may help you, too.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Briefly, on Faith

Faith isn't faith unless confidence in the object is maintained at all costs. I believe in a real, living God who is the only possible reason for good in the world. I believe He is personal, actual, morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing. I recognize the cognitive merit of objections; I recognize the cognitive merit of substantiations. I realize there are many ways in which I will die because of this belief for it requires more of me than I wish to give. And I am no hero, certainly no masochist. I just find that though faltering, painful, and tentative I still believe and can do no other. If that is untenable for the unbeliever, so be it. Unbelief is its own faith with equal vulnerability to the truth question. I believe there is Good. If there is a God who makes such a thing real, He will have mercy. If there is not, we will wish He were.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"Definitely Some Lack"

                 a musing on pastoral performance, and lack

“Yes, definitely some lack.”

I smiled and grimaced at once, the words painful and familiar. A childhood friend and I were renewing acquaintance and he was telling me of a former pastor: “He was an OK preacher I guess, but kinda distant at times. And when my dad lost his job it was like our pastor didn't even know. Definitely some lack.”

Now that I am a pastor, I feel the sting. As a former parishioner, I know the guilt of discontent.

All pastors lack because they are, like you, human.

But why are we so easily disgruntled, askance, disaffected? What makes it so easy and natural to see the faults of our pastor?

There are many reasons to be sure, but one is the age-old problem of hero-need. Pastors are supposed to fill that need. Most do for some; a few do for most; none do for all. Pastors lack. Definitely.

So what is the parishioner to do? Here is an idea or 2 -- ok, three:

  • Pray for your pastor. I dare you: really pray. Daily. By name. Praying may change your pastor and it will definitely change you if you stay with it. The pastor's lack may remain but it won't be nearly so obvious.

  • Do what you can, in cooperation and harmony. The mildest initiative and leadership in church life will give you a look through the pastor's lens on the world. You'll be the better for it, become a practical asset, and understand his lack. You may even discover the perceived lack has a good reason behind it. And, best of all, you may be able to alleviate that reason!

  • Get to know your pastor. Yes, this can be hard. Pastors fill a role that is often relationally awkward. They are supposed to have the right word, correct conduct, and always be available. This creates unique psychological challenges and puzzling behavior. But stay with it. When you are with your pastor up close and personal you may learn to really love him – lack and all.

Yes, your pastor has lack. It pains him more than it pains you. You can't help seeing it, but what if...

        complaints give way to prayer

       This should happen!” gives way to “I wonder if I could do it?”, and

        -  You (yes, YOU!) act first and often to get acquainted. You may find a real person emerges and lack fades into the background.

And after all, isn't that they way you hope your pastor will care for you?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Indulge in the Delight of this Piece from Chesterton

There are reasons GKC is much-loved. His prose is so winsome and imaginative. I hope you will take time to enjoy A Piece of Chalk, one of so many choice selections. Here's an excerpt:

I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one's pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long, and the age of the great epics is past.

From Samuel Clemens on the things we know for sure...

"It's not what you don't know that'll get you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." ~Mark Twain

Solzhenitsyn's Reminder: What is the object of life?

“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Ministry Remnants: Pray for Your Pastor

Ruminations on a Sunday Morning...

What does a pastor do early Sunday morning?
  • pray
  • wonder
  • worry (yes, pastor's do that, too)
  • pray
  • prepare
  • think of details like lights and announcements and music
  • worry about who no longer comes and why
  • pray
  • worry about normal struggles with health and family and finances and planning
  • wonder again how it is possible to effectively preach, lead, love
  • struggle to affirm the expected confidence in God from the inside out
  • (the list is long)
On a Sunday morning early when I need to be doing something other than random ruminations, I remind all who may see this that the pastor is human, too. Yes, pastor's have responsibility like you have responsibility, and no one is holding a gun to the preacher's head. It is a 'chosen' mix of love and duty and least of all should a pastor seek pity.

Prayer, however, is in order, for every Sunday morning is a reminder that this is God's work and sheer folly to engage without His help.

Bottom line? 

Pray for your pastor today.

- He deserves criticism, no doubt, and heaps enough on himself. 
- He's not world-class or even close, that is true, but he wishes he were. 
- He may overlook you and your concerns: this grieves him. Try to find it in your heart to forgive. 
- He has too many things going. Scold him for it if you must, but remember he is probably like you: Do you have too many things going?

Your pastor loves you, loves the church, and wakes every Sunday with a mix of trepidation and hope:
"I can do this!"
"Are you kidding?!"
"My head hurts, I am not yet ready -- I can't do this."
"Yes, you can!"

The voice goes silent and the pastor presses on.

Pray for your pastor today.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

"One word of truth will outweigh the whole world"

So once said Alexander Solzhenitsyn , Russian dissident, Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, exhile to US for 16 years, hero in his native Russia. He is perhaps most well known for The Gulag Archipelago, his account of the Soviet prison system in which he lived for many years. While I am not a Solzhenitsyn scholar, of course, I am in the ranks of a great many who find him an inspiration and modern prophet.

I read some of his Oak and Calf, a sort of literary bio. Among the more remarkable accounts therein is his record of how he preserved his writing during the years when his work was forbidden. He literally memorized — if my memory serves — entire books. He also would write in tiny print and save the rolled MS in cannisters which were then buried.

I often wished I had taken time to travel to his American home in Vermont in the ’80’s though it’s doubtful I could have met him. And, of course, he had his detractors in recent years — you can find a dissenting view here.

But on any account his life is remarkable: from a young soldier on the front lines in WWII to political prisoner to father (one of his sons is Ignat Solzhenitsyn, conductor and composer in Philadephia) to dissident author, Nobel laureate, exhile, a Soviet non-person, modern prophet, American resident, returning hero to his beloved homeland in 1994.

He seemd like the aged sage that would always be here — and so he is for some time to come if we will have the sense to remember the kind of thundering and wise things he said. I have excerpted below some of his statements from the famous speech he gave at Harvard on June 8, 1978 . It was not what Harvard wanted to hear, but they, and we, need to take to heart what he said.

I was sad to hear of his passing. Ironically I have been reading his novel Cancer Ward not knowing he had died. My friend, Steve Blakemore, posted about his death on his excellent Third Millenium faith email which you can join here . He quoted from Solzhenistsyn’s 1978 Harvard Speech and I enjoyed re-looking at it. I hope you will have time to savor — and receive a helpful jolt — from the comments excerpted below.

It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones. . .

We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.

After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.
It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline.

People also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press.
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.

Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West…. There are no other criteria.

On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.
Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil…was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected.
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed….[However, yours is the opposite error, so I would say],whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

On Javert, Breaking Rules, Love, and the Easy Burden

Les Misérables (1998) - Final Scene - YouTube

Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.(Mt. 11:29)

In Rafael Yglesias' screen play of Victor Hugo's timeless Les Miserables, Javert, the soul-less villain, finally captured the convict Valjean for good and has a gun to his head.

“It's a pity that rules don't allow me to be merciful,” Javert says. “I've tried to live my life without breaking a single rule.”

The line is thunder to the human heart. We imagine the keeping of rules is a good thing and the breaking of them is bad. We are right, and suffer the pride or shame that goes with either.

And yet Javert, it seems, had made rightness his highest goal. Separate from God, rightness builds its own prison, an echo-chamber of moral superiority that, in the end, can justify almost anything. Javert had devoted his life to rightness and in the end his life was forfeit at his own hand: he self-destructed in suicide. Javert found himself in a vortex from which not even Valjean's mercy could save.

And how else could life end for us if we make our supreme goal – the idol to which we daily bow – “living without breaking a rule?” Rules beget rules and crush the soul. Mercy cannot breath, and eventually dies.

A dear friend once said this to me in a different way. Listening to my struggle through tears and meandering, he said, “Sounds like you are in a valley.”

"Yes," I replied. "But what are we doing looking at all of this stuff, misunderstandings, stubbornesses, ideals all but crushed. What is this!?”

“We are in the laundry room, sorting.”

I liked the analogy, helpful instead of condemning. I wanted to say something about diapers and their messes, for that was the kind of 'laundry' at hand.

“I think you are fighting a phantom,” he continued. “I think the answer will be found when you quit straining. I think the answer is gentle, and you've not tried that much. How 'bout gentle?”

I didn't know what to say and then the conversation was abruptly interrupted.

And so I have often wondered: “Gentle. What does that mean?”

The Canadian teacher and psychologist, Jordan Peterson, gives a clue in one of his life rules: “Learn to treat yourself like someone for whom you are responsible and for whom you care a great deal.”

Really?! “Care for a great deal?” I care for myself well enough, especially my bodily wants. But can I be tender with myself? Can I forgive? Can I begin to ignore, and eventually quit the negative, perversely addictive self-talk? I think Peterson has it right. If I cared for someone else a great deal, how would I treat them? The answer gives guidance for how I should treat myself.

And so, how does this come around to Javert? Javert was his own cruel task-master. There was no room for love, only rules. He could not show mercy to himself, nor, in turn, to others. He self-flaggelated, and in it all a creature emerged whose only goal was to avoid breaking rules.

This is like Lewis's deep remark about selflessness. “We have it backwards” – my paraphrase. “The emphasis must not be on avoiding selfishness but on showing love, learning to demonstrate care and consideration for the needs of others.” Merely avoiding selfishness, like Javert's avoidance of rule-breaking, defines our life by a negative. It is a trajectory of despair. Love could not save him because he was bound to rules.

How we need this lesson. Do I care about others, or do I care about being right? We can live both of course. But we will find, I think, we are most right when we lay aside a singular focus on rightness and consider those around us. In this, love sets us free and we find the gentle way, learning to be free of striving, learning to be gentle with ourselves so we can, in turn, be gentle with others. How I long to learn this good way, this easy way to carry burdens, this letting go of the need to be right.

God is with us, and Jesus calls us, so beautifully, to His easy burden. That's the one I receive today, with gladness. And I want to be together on that journey with my wife and family, and with all who share this wonderful gift of life.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Rumination on a Misunderstanding

Last year I all-but-unavoidably overhead the following conversation in a restaurant. It is paraphrased – I wasn't that rude. And I have made up the names. I had no idea who these people are and wasn't about to ask, though I was deeply touched. Here's my best memory of the conversation:

“Amy has been a good friend for over 20 years. Now she seems distant.” Monica's voice was thoughtful and concerned, almost tired. At a glance she looked to be late 30's, perhaps a Mom, and busy with life. She seemed not to care if anyone overheard. I was eating alone and listening was hard to avoid.

Her friend, whom I will call Dawn, replied: “Well, you ignored her when you were in town last fall.”

“Ignored her?!” Dawn looked up as Monica reacted. “I told her I had no free time and felt really bad about it!”

“Well, she called after you left and we chatted,” Dawn replied. “I told her you had visited Valdez with Vallery. She was silent and seemed hurt. I think she really needed to see you.”

“What do you mean I went to Valdez?! I did no such thing!” I glanced between bites and could see Monica had gone from thoughtful to slightly angry.

Dawn continued, “Well, you left the house early one day and said you'd have to spend the night at Valdez with Vallery. I thought nothing of it because we both had so much going on.”

Monica's voiced was pained and sharp. “Valdez?! I went to Vallery's to finish that tax project she was buried with! No way did I have time to go to Valdez!”

Dawn was silent before replying.“Sounds like I made a bad mistake. I must have heard “Vallery” and thought “Valdez” and then joined the two in my mind, thinking no further. I didn't mean to.” It seemed there were some tears and more silence. I didn't dare look.

“I think you need to make a phone call.” Monica was angry. I wondered how this would play out.

To my happy surprise Dawn replied quietly. “You are right. I made a passing comment and didn't even know it was wrong. Amy thinks you enjoyed Valdez but had no time to visit her. The simplest misunderstanding damaged a friendship.”

I pretended not to hear but knew this was a sacred moment, the kind that heals and makes whole if we let it.

Dawn's sincere regret softened Monica's reply. “Thank you, friend. I wondered if something was wrong but did not know what to do. Maybe we should go see her together.”

I continued eating with head down but treasured the truth in my heart. How often an unintentionally errant word can divide. It is for us to be both slow to speak, and slow to indignation when we suffer a perceived affront. Misunderstandings abound, the result of human frailties we all share in abundance. And when we find ourselves at fault, we need the grace of wisdom and action to bring healing and truth.

Monica and Dawn found the way through honest discussion and a desire to heal. I pray the lesson is not lost on this eaves-dropping friend.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

On being "Merely Dead"

Wonderful lines from Wendell Berry

What hard travail God does in death

What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.
The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.
The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Keeping Relational Reverb in Check

My friend, Roger, explained how reverb works in recording. “While playing in a room with normal recording, that is recording as heard in 'the house', there will be reverb: the normal echoes and bouncing of sound the ear is accustomed to. Then, when the recorded music is played back in a room, especially the same room, the reverb is doubled and can be unmanageable to the ear.”

The same happens in our relationships, especially those 'in the house.' We have all kinds of reverb going on in our souls and minds. We see shortcomings that trip us up. We can't quit a bad habit, we feel cantankerous most of the time, or we are self-critical without relief. This creates reverb. It bounces around within and drags us down in self-imposed defeat.

Then, the inevitable happens. Our faults, for which we already feel deep pain and which cause no small bit of internal noise, irritate those closest to us. Well-meaning, having borne with us for long days and years, they do not mean to add to the noise. But often that is exactly what happens. Either we assume they feel this way, or they actually say it: “Must you really keep doing that? Is something wrong?”

Now the sound is doubled and spills out, either silently or in painful words: “Want to know what's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong. You! If you would leave me alone we'd be ok!”

And so it goes, one pain feeding another, rebounding, unmanageable, painful to the ear, devastating to the soul.

There is a better way. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Let him heal both the self-talk and the behaviour it breeds.

How does he do this? Time, talking, others, learning. There is no other way but the the patience and quiet and taking it on the chin when others object, learning to help them bear the burden you yourself have helped cause. Without this we never grow. But when we give up our selfish desires and refuse to insist on our own way we die the death of Psalm 126, putting the seed of self in the ground.

And then, as with all seeds, “the corn of wheat” comes to life and we find a harvest of joy, bitter tears forgotten.

Relational reverb is real and when it doubles we can't live with it for long. Learning the peace of Christ brings the sound of forgiveness which doubles joy instead of pain.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Rare Rumination on our National Need

“Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.” 
(I Thess. 4:11)

I have often wondered who might be the Thomas Paine of our day, one who writes precient insights to sway a nation. Would it be someone with the wit of the late Christopher Hitchens, or a Sam Harris who gives voice to countless unbelievers? Is there a Mark Twain, a G. K. Chesterton, a George Orwell in Chomsky, Robinson, Will, Krugman, Noonan, or (the lates) Wolfe or Krauthammer? Can any of our top-shelf writers – and the list is very long – change our thinking?

Perhaps the better question is, “What can do such a thing?” and the answer is, always and forever more, ideas. Ideas hold the power.

This is where writers do battle, assessing, insisting, construing, advocating. Trump won on an idea: “The political class is entrenched and self-serving. 'Drain the swamp!'” The other side was hapless against that idea: “All opposed, say 'No!'” And say “No!” they continue to do with inspired troopery.

But what idea has the power to hold us together? We are polarized so badly we decide national elections on a chad. When we finally have a winner the other side sees doomsday. I was shocked at the vulgar anti-Obama rhetoric in 2012. We are loosing common ground.  

Is there an idea with the power to capture us enough to lay aside polarizing bombs? Are we doomed to the hyper-political every two years so we seek solace anywhere – in political newcomers or billionaires who buy the election? Might we ever realize the dream of life free of crushing election cycles and endless ads?

Maybe Google will save us by deciding for us, our votes not so free after all.

I'm the arm-chair amateur with an idea about the Idea that held us together and could again if we would hear it. That idea is freedom: freedom to do as one should, not merely as one might wish to do.

Unconstrained freedom is a pipers' dream with followers, betimes, among all. Life has stubborn contraints, so we painfully learn. The protestor's sign, “Sworn to fun; loyal to none” leads nowhere fast.

Behind it all is the question of who guarantees such freedom. If we have rights, someone has to be responsible. Policemen must keep the beat, judges must act with integrity, our fellow citizens must have the strength of will to insist on things like free speech and “innocent until proven guilty.” And we have to defend ourselves against enemies “foreign and domestic.”

This idea of freedom, earned and maintained through responsible, vigilant living – is a treasure worth living and dying for. It is the founding idea of our nation, the jewel the constitution intends to protect.

But we have mission fatigue. We are losing the will to insist on freedom. This is demonstrated not least by our national debt, a mind-numbing amount of 25,000 billion dollars. If we had 2000 years to repay, interest free, the monthly payment would be over one billion dollars.

This is alarming in the extreme and undercuts freedom, because debt always does exactly that. Without financial strength and agility we are vulnerable. However, the lack of will that got us here is the deeper problem.

Can we endure through this difficulty? Will there emerge a unifying idea with the power to carry us? I think so, but it may not be freedom. The idea that unites a vulnerable nation may well be security. If our leaders – or God forbid – the leaders of an invading nation, can promise security we may take it, a bowl of poor pooridge to replace the dying heritage of freedom.

I still believe in freedom – personal and national. But we will lose this treasure if we fail to pay its price in personal responsibility and determined fortitude. This means paying our bills, providing for our own, caring for our neighbor. And it means we lay aside our polarizing swords. This last is not entirely possible, for persons with opposing primary ideas can never be agreed: discussion only leads them further apart. But we have to try, for political rivals are people, too!

And so I ask, “What can hold us together?” It is not freedom alone, for there are a thousand attending ideas. But freedom seems to be at the core. I want that, but I feel the fatigue. Will you join me in doing the right thing: 
  • Speak truth with humility, knowing you do not see all things clearly. 
  • Refuse to see the world through a political grid, but have patience with those who do. 
  • Strive for self-reliance, in part so you can help those who cannot help themselves.
In all this I find a landing point in the timeless edict of St. Paul in the New Testament: “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.” (I Thess. 4:11) That's a tall order, a simple way, hard for most of us to accept. But I want to learn it, for the good of my family and community, and for the hope of our nation. I hope you do, too.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Don't Discount the Value of Words

Words. We live in a sea of them and can't live without them. They vex us and bless us. We are too seldom “at a loss for” and too often subject to “a torrent of.” Technology has taken words to new heights -- or lows as the case may be – with a “chattering class” which makes much of little so the airwaves are filled with that of which we scarcely know and about which we can do less. It can be overwhelming, and then we use words to talk about it, with ironic smile.

The late communications guru, Neil Postman, was prophetic on the matter. His book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” should be required reading, and its introduction is worth the price. Comparing Orwell “Books will be burned” and Huxley “Books will become meaningless” he lands with Huxley, predicting the information explosion would overwhelm us and “truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.”

It seems Postman was right. Words pour forth with no end in sight and knowing the actual real truth is almost an afterthought. “The truth will set us free” indeed, but where is it? In exasperation we resort to believing what we want to believe, various competing truth claims left aside. And so it is, all but unavoidably so.

But we dare not leave it there. Our lives emphatically are not in that ocean of words but in our homes and work, with friends and neighbors. Here words can be real, truthful, meaningful, attached to the lives we know, verified and lived out. Here words really matter.

Do you know the value of a word? I marvel when I think how powerful words can be, for good or ill. A high school teacher once offered a simple compliment, at the right time and in the right way. That word still feeds my soul 40 years later. A beloved distant relative, in a moment of frustration, once yelled at me: “Do you have no brain?!” It was cruel and he knew it. I still remember, and feel the tears. Words matter.

The New Testament writer, James, is plain, practical and wise on this point, as always. His book should also be “required reading.” Paraphrasing the opening of chapter 3, he asks: “Do you know someone who never makes a mistake when they talk? If you do, that person is perfect!” Then he throws down on the value of words, emphasizing the out-sized impact they have. James uses three basic metaphors to illustrate the weight of words: a bit, a rudder, a flame. A bit guides a horse, a rudder directs a ship, a flame burns a forest. Each has power vastly greater than its size.

This is leverage, this is power, this is weight. We should hold in awe the ability we have to take a breath, express that air through tongue and language, and change the world. For so it is. Words -- each one of them – change the world. This is the truth of never putting the toothpaste back into the tube, or never finding the feathers scattered to the wind. Words are easy to speak but impossible to retrieve. They have great value and require great care. They change the world, for good or ill.

Yes, we live in a world of words that can be mind-numbing and truth-dulling. But we can bring healing to this large-scale problem by giving our words value because backed with simple integrity, filled with grace and truth; thoughtful, careful, intended to bless. It's a tall order and a happy opportunity. That's how I want to learn to live, and I hope you do, too.