The Mindful Disciple

I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.

Disabusement

Fall is in full swing, the elections behind us, the holidays ahead and oh, there’s much to see – including a bumper crop of Hollywood films announced. James Cameron, the man who holds himself to be an authority on oceanography and global warming due to the fact that he made a movie about the Titanic, has begun filming the sequel to his 2009 blockbuster Avatar. You know, the one you’ve seen repeatedly – I mean, literally repeatedly. Cameron’s Avatar, Costner’s Dances with Wolves, and Disney’s Pocahontas are the same film, albeit with different technologies and different character names. Here’s the plot: by intriguing happenstance a young, zealous military man of ethnic European background infiltrates a barbaric tribe and after a bit of flailing about eventually proves his worth and falls in love with the beautiful and valiant princess-facsimile, learns that her people are not barbarians at all but rather noble, dignified, living in harmony with nature; that, in fact, the true barbarians are his own people: rapacious, violent, and untrustworthy – so he betrays his heritage, throws in his lot with the natives, fights and saves the day, or at least sort of. The End. See? Same film.

I don’t exactly blame Cameron for ripping off someone else’s creative work; it’s hard not to, given our propensity to steal, and anyway, even though we are story-telling creatures our story-telling capabilities are rather limited. Sorry to be the Toto to everyone’s Dorothy, but sometimes you have to pull back the curtain to reveal that the clash, bang, and drama is nothing more than the mundane, monotonous, and mendacious. Which brings us right back to politics.

Tuesday’s elections have been already over analyzed but one thing you’ve not likely heard from any commentators is how little difference will be made. “Everything has Changed!” trumpeted one headline but no, I tell you, nothing has changed.

Think about the last time there was an overwhelming shift of power in this country, or when a single party dominated two or even all three branches of government. Were there grand sweeping changes? Were the deepest dreams and aspirations of the victorious electorate enacted into law and policy – or did things fundamentally continue along the same trajectory? Look at the number of times the overwhelming desire of the population has been and is even now being ignored. Just like Cameron’s sci-fi spectacle, it’s the same story as the last revolution, the previous shellacking, the most recent tidal wave. Clash, bang, drama, a few billion spent here and there, the winners go to Washington, the losers write bestsellers and earn millions on the speakers’ circuit, and both of them want us to go back to mindless entertainment while nothing of significance changes.

If your own gut and a bit of common sense doesn’t confirm that, make sure to get a copy of the next issue of Perspectives on Politics, which reports the depressing news that poly-sci research has proven the American political system is controlled by giant corporations and the wealthy elite; your vote and my vote have little or no influence at all. The upper echelons of society are quite immune to the will of the people, and while this was never a democracy to begin with (the USA was established as a democratic republic, which is not the same thing as a democracy) it should be by now obvious that our leaders are increasingly indifferent to what We, the People, want. And why would they care? They have power; they don’t need us.

Depressing news, that is, if you were looking for a political solution to a spiritual problem. Government isn’t wrong, per se; the bible tells us human governance is ordained by God, a part and parcel of the commission given man as the divine viceroy. We as a species were given authority over the earth to bring about order, harmony and mutual flourishing – the kingdom of God, so to speak – but Scripture also points out that we are a fallen race, meaning our efforts to do so will be haphazard at best. Our fallenness is something government did not cause and cannot cure; it can, at best, only slow the process of decay.

We long for an ideal world because, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we were made for an ideal world. Left, Right, and Center, we think we know how to bring about that ideal world yet we can’t. We cannot fix ourselves, and we are, as a culture, drifting away from the only one who can.

The West is falling. It was built upon concepts drawn from the Christian faith – things like noblesse oblige, the worth of the individual soul (and therefore a greater weight on individualism over collectivism), hard work, delayed gratification, personal modesty, the supremacy of truth in both the public square and the private arena (and as a direct consequence, honesty became a civic as well as personal virtue), reason and logic and, yes, science – why, even Capitalism is a biblical gift, according to Rodney Stark. Obviously (and at times notoriously) plenty of Westerners have disdained these things or applied them with great inequality, and I am not saying these things are not to be found outside of the West, but it cannot be denied that these were the foundations of the Western world, and insofar as they are being systematically denigrated, rejected, subverted and removed from Western society then Western society as it currently exists will eventually cease be, and something else will replace it.

Any guesses as to what that might be?

If you answered paganism, you win.

That is not a net positive. Lest anyone think that paganism will be all bacchanalias and frolic, they should read a bit about what pagan societies were like – or for a contemporary illustration, look to the Levant. What you see happening there right now is but a foretaste of what’s to come. Whatever form of paganism fills the void left behind, there will be more and more beheadings and torture, burnings of books (and witches), rampant fear, chattel slavery – in many ways, to use the words of Thomas Hobbes, an inexorable return to the way life has been throughout most of human history: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Sixteen centuries ago Augustine said it best: you are simultaneously a citizen of two realms, the earthly and the heavenly. Do what’s right for each, but never confuse the two. Obey earthly authorities insofar as doing so would not cause you to disobey God. Seek the good of your society; vote, pay taxes, serve jury duty, that sort of thing. Christianity will survive, and thrive, just fine without the West. The West will do neither without Christianity.

I hope I have disabused you of the notion that our best efforts, our activism, our rage, our anything can save our culture. Christ alone can. If we will not have him, things here will only get worse. But if we, collectively, will not have him, each of us individually can. Pray he will work in you and through you, cooperate with him, be the kind of man or woman who demonstrates him to whomever is in your sphere of influence. This world is out of sync with its Maker and will remain so until the end; you and I, however, can set up pockets of resistance against it. Read, think, ask questions, learn, act, and most of all, remember.

Of course, this will make you dangerous, but that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it?

ResistanceImage credit: “Resistance;” sculpture by Corinne Franzén-Heslenfeld, Utrecht, The Netherlands; photograph by Arend Jan Wonink, flikr creative commons, 2009

WEDNESDAY WISDOM

from Tractatus Politicus (1st published 1676) by Baruch Spinoza:

I have strived not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.

 

Amity and Enmity

“Friendship,” according to boxing great Muhammad Ali, “is not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything at all.”

Hopefully you have good, solid friends, those upon whom you know you can always depend to cheer you up, help you out, and keep you going when times get tough – the kind of people who, in the words of Walter Winchell, walk in when the rest of the world walks out. There’s got to be at least one friend in your life who will always be honest with you, always be trustworthy, always have your best interest at heart.

Believe it or not, God can be that kind of friend.

Friendship

In certain circles this is a rather popular concept, at least recently; you don’t have to be in too many contemporary worship sets or listen long to Christian radio without soon hearing someone announce “I am a friend of God” or affirm “the One who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine” or the (possibly sarcastic) boast, “I am the friendliest of friends of God.”

It is a staggering concept, if you think about it, that the Supreme Being – the Mind behind the universe, the only enduring, eternal, infinite One – is willing and able to be your friend. There is a catch, however.

Three separate times the Patriarch Abraham is referred to as “God’s friend.” But was that title lightly bestowed? It would seem clear that this friendship came about because Abraham “believed God” (c.f. Gen 15.6 along w/ Rom 4.3), which must be understood to be not mere doctrinal assent on Abraham’s part but subsequent obedience. It is noteworthy that in the Hebrew Bible the word translated as “faith,” “trust,” or “belief” can equally be rendered “faithful” or “faithfulness” – in other words, right belief will perforce lead to right action. The two are inseparable. In our classical Western mindset, we have divorced the two, to our detriment. Paraphrasing Caneday, there is no belief apart from good works, nor are there good works apart from belief.

If a friendly relationship with the Creator is possible, is it not vital to know how Christ defined it? He surely did, in a succinct sentence:

“Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

So it’s pretty clear friendship with God is contingent upon obedience towards God. We don’t have the right to demand submission from fellow humans as a test of friendship, but God does.

Some time back, at the church where I served as pastor at the time, a young woman came to me for counseling. She’d had a series of relationships with men, some of whom she’d married, some she hadn’t; with some she’d borne children. All of the relationships had been rocky and none had ended well. She wanted to know why her life was so messed up, and how it could change. I told her there were undoubtedly a number of influences and events which factored into her life choices, but it could all be boiled down to one simple answer: Jesus wasn’t very high on her priority list.

You see, she claimed to be a Christian, and I never doubted her profession of faith … just its importance to her. I’m not saying she didn’t love the Lord. I said she loved a lot of things more than she loved him, and until that changed – until he took the preeminent place in her thinking – she would continue in the pattern she’d been living.

None of this was said with any air of superiority or condemnation. I know what it’s like to screw up. She knew I spoke from compassion as well as deep conviction. She agreed with my analysis. I’d hoped she’d repent, but instead she quit coming to church. People got mad at me.

Doesn’t God love her, no matter what, you ask? Absolutely. But God might not like her very much – or you or I, for that matter. Love isn’t earned, but likability is.

Do you profess faith? That’s nice, but keep in mind: Faith without faithfulness is apostasy.

There’s a lovely Arab proverb that fits here: “A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

That is the kind of relationship God offers.

Conversely, there’s this:

Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

This present age is infected with sin, intractably rebellious against its Maker. You cannot be allied with both it and God at the same time. There is no third way; you must choose one side or the other.

Friends or enemies? Which will it be?

 

Mothers and Daughters

Today is Mother’s Day (or Mothers’ Day or Mothers Day or Mothering Sunday, take your pick) in most of the over five dozen countries where this holiday is observed. Hopefully it is a pleasant, even meaningful occasion for you. Keep in mind it is not so for all. Many of us have lost our mothers – this may be the first Mother’s Day without her – and there are a great many women who’ve lost their children, or wished to have children but never could. This is a painful reminder of loss for some – maybe you, too.

It is particularly painful to the mothers in Nigeria, where in the last few weeks hundreds of their daughters have been stolen from them by members of the Islamist group Boko Haram. A small handful has escaped; God grant more will join those who’ve gotten free.

Mentioning God may cause you to ask why he doesn’t prevent this from happening. Some atheists – Dawkins and Harris, to mention a few celebrity non-believers – assert that the absence divine intervention in situations like this is proof God does not exist. I suggest otherwise.

The sad reality is the Sovereign of the universe delegated authority over this planet to us, and we are notoriously flawed. You are. So am I. Sure, there are things you and I personally won’t do, but as a species we are self-centered, corrupt, and quick to devolve into barbarism. The example of Boko Haram serves as a reminder that for most of its history the human animal has practiced rape as a legitimate form of warfare.

So why doesn’t the Lord of creation intervene when evil occurs? I say he has been and is still intervening – but in ways that do not countermand mankind’s divine rights. God, you see, rarely invokes overt raw power; he is much more likely to orchestrate change by persuasion, not coercion. It would seem he prefers to work from within.

That is very likely what is happening in Nigeria and surrounding countries. And we are a part of it.

The media persists in saying these young women were kidnapped. They were not. They were abducted.

What is the difference, you ask? No ransom for their return is being demanded. Boko Haram has no intention of returning them. They will be sex slaves or wives – and, under Boko Haram’s dominion, there is little difference between the two.

And I suspect this was God’s plan all along. Why? Because this pattern has been seen before in history.

Consider: for almost four centuries, Vikings were the terror of Europe. They were efficient, ruthless killers who pillaged and destroyed in waves of raids that were not confined to coastal areas of central and southern Europe; they would set up base camps by the sea and make forays deep inland for months at a time. Few could withstand them. Historians tell us that by the eleventh century the Viking militant culture was dead, primarily due to economic and religious factors – the latter, specifically, meaning that the Church by that time was deeply integrated into Norse society. How did that happen? It was by the influence of generations of Christian girls and women whom the Vikings carried off as sex slaves and wives. Cut off forever from their families, isolated from almost everything familiar, they clung to their faith – and that faith enabled them to transform their homes, neighborhoods, and an entire civilization.

As it turns out, this is precisely what Scripture said might happen.

It is long, slow process of transformation, and incredibly sad and painful. The cost is great, but the cost of not effecting change would have been far greater.

God did not spare his only begotten Son. What makes you think he will spare his daughters?

Don’t for a moment blame God if in his permissive will he has allowed these Nigerian young women, and hundreds more besides, to suffer a cruel fate in order to transform the hearts and minds of fanatical, totalitarian killers. If he was wrong to do so, how much more are we – we who have done exactly the same thing, prompted by baser, political, motives rather than spiritual ones.

It was not God who sent millions of US taxpayer dollars to build schools in sub-Saharan Africa and encourage girls to get an education. It is not God who is now tweeting hashtags and holding rallies and doubling down on the call for the sisters and cousins and daughters of the victims to likewise put themselves in harm’s way. It is we who have done this. We, from the safety of our shores and the comfort of our coffee shops, have knowingly put these young women in danger, because we wanted to use them as tools in a subversive campaign against so-called radical Islam. We made them targets; we invited military intervention against them from a group that correctly our actions as a threat to their ideology. We are partly to blame for their suffering.

We cannot hope God will come along and clean up our foreign policy failures. That is not his responsibility. Our agendas are not his agendas; our ways are not his ways. What we can hope for is that he will take our messes and make from them something far better than we could possibly have imagined.

Please pray for these young women. Pray for comfort and peace for them, and for their families. Pray they would be bold and courageous, that their wills would not break under pressure. Pray that the life and power of God within them will be evident to their captors. Pray for their captors to repent of their evil ways. Pray for justice, but no less than you pray for mercy – for them, as well as for yourself.

Boko-Haram_full_600

WEDNESDAY WISDOM

from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

“Begin each morning by saying to thyself, ‘Today I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.’ All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good (that it is beautiful), and of the bad (that it is ugly), and the nature of him who does wrong (that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity); I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another, then, is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away from one another.”

A Stoic philosopher at heart, Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from A.D. 161-180, was highly regarded by 1st century Christians, though he evidently had little love for them. It is odd, then, that so much of what he wrote has direct parallels to the Bible, almost as if some of his ideas were drawn directly from Scripture. Something to meditate on today.

Lovely

Speaking about hard-corn pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said it was hard to describe or define,

“but I know it when I see it.”

The same cannot be said for beauty, though, can it? No doubt you, like everyone else, have your own subjective understanding of what it is, but is it possible an objective standard of beauty exists? Do you know how God defines beauty?

We all have a tendency to be drawn to beauty, visual or otherwise. Although what most people consider the aesthetic of beauty changes across cultures and eras (think, for example, about those pulchritudinous porkers that made Peter Paul Reuben famous), the fact remains that those who are considered beautiful achieve greater financial success than their less striking counterparts – but, somewhat counterintuitively, they are also more likely to struggle with lower self-esteem.

Who truly possesses beauty? How often do you notice it, and how often do you miss it? Is it possible that superficial, transitory beauty prevents us from seeing that which is genuinely lovely and worthy that daily passes by?

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with eye candy. God arguably made us in such a way that we enjoy and desire beauty. There are beautiful people in the Bible: The Matriarchs Sarah and Rachel were extremely attractive (the latter is also referred to as “well endowed”). Both of Israel’s first two kings are described as quite handsome. Solomon’s most famous bride was beautiful – she, for her part, described him as “altogether lovely” – and of his brother Absolom it was said no man in the nation exceeded him in beauty. And lest we forget, it was Esther’s good looks that positioned her to save her people from extermination.

And yet, in this as in many things, what is good can obscure what is best.

Outward looks, in and of themselves, are neither lauded nor condemned in Scripture. But external beauty is temporary at best, and must never form the basis of our identity or worth. Worse yet is when outward beauty leads us into narcissism, self-centeredness, and idolatry. Spending one’s time and money on jewelry and fine clothing, for example, while neglecting to care for the poor and needy earns God’s condemnation.

In a passage speaking strictly to women, the Apostle Peter commands their adornment (kosmos, from whence comes the modern English cosmetics) not be merely external. Instead, he says, the beauty you should focus on cultivating is spiritual:

“It should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

In a parallel passage, the Apostle Paul says women professing to be godly should have good works as their “cosmetics” (and, given that Psychology Today says the “beauty gap” between males and females is finally closing, these verses probably equally apply to men as well).

The eminent New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson was of the opinion Peter & Paul are not in these passages forbidding patronizing beauty salons, clothiers, and jewelers; rather, he says, they draw a sharp contrast between temporal, expensive, and vain attempts at beauty versus a kind of beauty that is inward and eternal. The former is only bad when it detracts from the latter.

We tend to forget this, even when it comes to Jesus.

JC Project

From 1927’s King of Kings to this year’s Son of God, the Messiah has always been portrayed on the silver screen by a hunky (if not outright sexy) actor. That’s the nature of Hollywood productions. But the flesh and blood Savior was nothing like that. As the Prophet wrote,

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Have you ever noticed the Orthodox cross? Attached to the vertical beam are not two horizontal lines, but three: an accusation plate (in this case, “King of the Jews,” i.e. guilty by reason of sedition), a patibulum for the outstretched arms, and a footrest. The latter is always cocked at an angle, based on the idea that Jesus was a clubfoot. There is no historical reason to believe he was deformed; as in all Orthodox iconography, the depiction is not intended to be technically accurate as to remind of and focus on divinely-revealed truth, in this case the above verse from Isaiah. Messiah, he foresaw, would not be dashing or inspiring. Messiah appeared ordinary, perhaps even ugly. It was his character, his personality, his love and his intercession on our behalf that draws us to him, not his good looks.

We all have a tendency to be drawn to beauty. We also all have a tendency to remake Jesus into something we find more palatable, and not merely in terms of his physique. We like those Bible verses that speak of his kindness and humility, and dislike the ones that describe him a judge. Or we love to think of him wrathfully punishing sinners – as long as his anger is directed at someone else, not us (the Westboro Baptist folks come to mind here).

Who is Jesus? He is the Creator who subjected himself to his own creation, the ruler of heaven’s armies, a warrior, a healer. He turns no one away, yet he turns over tables of moneylenders in the Temple (and wove a whip for the occasion, too). He is both kind and stern. Accept both as true parts of his character, and don’t fawn over one side while neglecting the other. Both aspects of the King are wonderful in their own way.

“Is there in truth no beauty?” asked 17th century poet & Anglican priest George Herbert. Is it not enough that Jesus is whom the Bible presents him to be? Can you accept and embrace him as he is, and not try painting him over with the façade of who you’d prefer he be?

Much hinges on your answer.

 

Image credits (L-R): Head of Christ, Walter Sallman (1940); actor Diogo Morgado from Son of God (2014); Prince of Peace, Akiane Kramarik (2004); 1st century Semite male composite based on forensic evidence,http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186 (2002)

 

WEDNESDAY WISDOM

“Abba, Father! We approach Thee” by James G. Deck, from Hymns for the Poor of the Flock (1891):

Abba, Father! We approach Thee
In our Savior’s precious Name;
We, Thy children, here assembled,
Now Thy promised blessing claim;
From our sins His blood hath washed us,
’Tis through Him our souls draw nigh,
And Thy Spirit, too, hath taught us,
“Abba, Father,” thus to cry.

Once as prodigals we wandered
In our folly far from Thee,
But Thy grace, o’er sin abounding,
Rescued us from misery;
Thou Thy prodigals hast pardoned,
Kissed us with a Father’s love,
Spread the festive board, and called us,
E’er to dwell with Thee above.

Clothed in garments of salvation,
At Thy table is our place,
We rejoice, and Thou rejoicest,
In the riches of Thy grace;
“It is meet,” we hear Thee saying,
“We should merry and be glad,
I have found My once lost children,
Now they live who once were dead.”

Abba, Father! All adore Thee,
All rejoice in Heav’n above,
While in us they learn the wonders
Of Thy wisdom, grace, and love;
Soon before Thy throne assembled,
All Thy children shall proclaim,
“Glory, everlasting glory,
Be to God and to the Lamb!”

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